Sen. Patty Murray criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the spreading coronavirus Tuesday morning, using a Senate hearing to criticize the federal government’s response to the deadly virus.
“The administration has had months to prepare for this and…if someone in the White House is actually in charge of responding to this crisis it would be news to anyone in my state,” Murray said. “This is really a frightening time. At least six people in my home state have already died from the virus and I’m told we should expect more.”
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Tuesday’s Senate hearing included bipartisan criticism of the federal government’s handling of the crisis, particularly the way the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) fumbled the distribution of testing kits for the new coronavirus, which is technically referred to as SARS-CoV-2. The CDC’s initial testing kits were found to be defective and the agency has only tested a few hundred people for the virus, according to data that was abruptly removed from the agency’s website yesterday.
Senators during Tuesday's hearing repeatedly focused on a deadly outbreak at a long-term care facility in Kirkland. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, asked the CDC’s principal director how the outbreak could have happened given the CDC knew that the virus was present in Washington state.
“How can we have a situation like Washington state where we have known for up to six weeks, [with the virus] reaching possibly 1,500 individuals, yet we experienced what we have with this long term care facility… how can that happen when we invested so much in being there early on?” Burr said.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal director of the CDC, did not specifically explain why testing was not broadened in Washington but said that the outbreak in Kirkland was tragic.
“The situation in Washington state is tragic,” Schuchat said. “An outbreak in a long-term care facility is one of the things we have been worried about since day one.”
Dr. Stephen Hahn, a commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), testified that the FDA is working with a private diagnostic test manufacturer to distribute 2,500 test kits able to complete 500 tests each, or over one million tests cumulatively, by the end of the week. Hahn was pressed by multiple Senators as to why he was confident that suddenly so many tests would be available when the government has so far struggled to get even a few hundred people tested. He offered a mild guarantee, saying that “we have been in touch with this particular manufacturer over the last few days and we know them well.”
But a report from The New York Times following Tuesday's hearing cast doubt on the government's ability to meet Hahn's prediction of one million tests by the end of the week.
Asked whether the government will have enough diagnostic tests to handle the outbreak, Schuchat said she was “optimistic, but I want to remain humbled."
The CDC first distributed diagnostic tests around the country in February, but those tests were defective and unable to be used. The CDC eventually released a fix to the flawed kits, but that remedy was only sent to a small number of labs across the country, according to the New York Times.
The CDC also continued to use a restrictive set of criteria for who could receive the test, allowing people to be tested only if they had recently traveled to China or if they came in contact with a confirmed case of the new virus. That criteria was widened late last week to include travelers from affected areas other than China and for people who were hospitalized with unexplained flu-like symptoms.
The Food and Drug Administration further expanded testing on Saturday by allowing labs to do testing on their own, using their own diagnostic tests, instead of waiting for the CDC to provide replacements.
But the overall delay in testing has been blamed for hastening the spread of the deadly virus, particularly in the Seattle area. Genetic testing of two COVID-19 cases in Washington showed evidence the virus has been spreading in the Seattle region unnoticed for six weeks, according to genetic testing conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Trevor Bedford, a researcher with Fred Hutchinson, has posted data supporting this hypothesis online and has blamed a lack of testing for accelerating the spread of the virus.
“This lack of testing was a critical error and allowed an outbreak in Snohomish County and surroundings to grow to a sizable problem before it was even detected,” Bedford said in a blog posted Monday.