Administration officials return to Congress to discuss COVID-19 response

Partisan divisions were on display at a joint hearing of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Health and Oversight & Investigations subcommittees, as Republicans took the lead in criticizing federal health agency leaders for the COVID-19 response.

“It is critical that we understand in detail the federal response,” said Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee Chair Morgan Griffith (R-VA). Both Democrats and Republicans emphasized the need for preparedness and Democrats also praised vaccine development.

Health Subcommittee Chair Brett Guthrie (R-KY) said being prepared involved reauthorizing the Pandemics and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA), which “could make a difference between life and death for millions of Americans.”

Criticisms leveled at the administration officials were wide-ranging and included poor public health data and communication, problems with CDC testing kits, an inadequate national stockpile of protective equipment, inadequate oversight of NIH grants for COVID-19 research, and poor inspection of foreign sites by the FDA.

Trust was a common theme

Republicans said missteps had eroded trust in health agencies. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and FDA Commissioner Robert Califf blamed misinformation for eroding trust, and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) decried dangerous misinformation from “extremists on the right.”

Walensky said that rebuilding trust involved “sharing our scientific data faster, enhancing our laboratory quality, translating that science into clear, concise communications.”

She and NIH Acting Director Lawrence Tabak emphasized the value of reaching people through community-based organizations to build trust and improve health equity.

Calls for equity

Several participants discussed the issue of equity in health care provision, saying equity is driven by local outreach and other factors:

  • Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL) said that free vaccines improved equity and asked NIH’s Tabak about clinical trial diversity.
  • NIH is using lessons learned on community outreach to improve diversity in all clinical trials, said Tabak.
  • Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA) urged reducing barriers to care and efforts to distribute vaccines to all communities.
  • Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) recommended a wider translation of messaging into Spanish.

The process of analyzing the COVID response is set to continue in upcoming House hearings, which are expected to display partisanship while also allowing for important discussions on the topic of pandemic preparedness.

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