The Biden administration came under fire for its pandemic response and communications as the Omicron variant continues to drive U.S. coronaviruscases.
Conflicting guidance on issues such as boosters and testing have left the public confused about how best to protect themselves, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in a hearing Tuesday.
The administration’s booster rollout and the recent update to the quarantine and isolation guidance were a “mess” and a “disaster,” Burr said in the hearing. “I’m not questioning the science,” he said, “but I’m questioning your communication strategies. It’s no wonder the American people are confused.”
The U.S. and countries worldwide have been hit by surges since the emergence of Omicron in South Africa late last year. The quickly spreading mutant was classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern in November and has swept through the U.S. since it was detected in California on Dec. 1.
Criticisms came from members of both parties, as committee Chair Patty Murray said she’s heard from many people who can’t find tests or have given up on getting tested because of cost and lack of availability.
“People back in my home state of Washington and across the country are frustrated and worried about the course of this pandemic and its persistent challenges,” Murray said in her opening statement.
Omicron accounted for 98% of all sequenced coronaviruscases in the U.S. in the week ending Jan. 8, up from 95% in the previous week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday in remarks prepared for the hearing. The surge risks putting additional strain on healthcare systems as flu season intensifies, she told Senate lawmakers.
Although data suggest that Omicron infections are less severe than those from other variants such as Delta, the transmissibility and high number of infections with the new variant still threaten hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices with added strain, Walensky said. Other seasonal infections alongside Omicron may create an even more dire situation, she said.
“These stresses likely will be in addition to the ongoing Delta variant infections and a rising burden of illness caused by other respiratory pathogens, such as influenza, which have begun circulating at greater frequencies,” she said in her remarks.
Health officials have been working to monitor the spread of Omicron, which is able to partially evade the effect of COVID-19 shots. Booster shots restore the protection given by initial vaccination regimens, studies show.
Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s medical adviser and head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that the appearance of new variants shows the importance of developing new vaccines that remain effective in the face of new mutations. After Omicron passes will be a good time to reassess the approach to the pandemic, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Dawn O’Connell said. That likely won’t take very long, she said.
The meeting was held in a large space to allow for social distancing, and the number of physical attendees was limited to try to limit infection risk, Murray said. She asked everyone in attendance to remain masked.
Yet the lack of consistency in observing her guidelines was evident even during the hearing. Walensky and Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock, who also testified, appeared to be double-masked and kept their masks on throughout the hearing. Meanwhile, Fauci, who wore a KN95 mask, took it off when speaking. Some senators wore masks; others didn’t.
Burr said the administration had lost trust from Americans after front-running regulators on its commitment to boosters, and that he found the CDC’s guidance on post-exposure isolation confusing. By keeping the response on an emergency footing, the government has maintained the U.S. in a state of disruption and anxiety, according to Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana.
“I think if you want to regain the trust of the American public, you’ll probably be looking at a total revamp on what we do,” he said.
Health officials need to keep their focus on keeping hospitals and other services operating as the Omicron variant sweeps across the nation, Woodcock said.
“Most people are going to get COVID,” she said. “What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation,” and other essential services.