Lawmakers press health officials on coronavirus preparations

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House February 26, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House February 26, 2020 in Washington, DC.
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Fearful that more Americans may have coronavirus than is known, senior Trump administration officials told Congress on Thursday they are speeding distribution of testing kits to better assess the risk of a widespread outbreak in the United States.

But the assurances from Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, did not quell lawmakers’ criticism that the White House hasn’t adequately prepared for a potential public health crisis.

And several Democrats raised concerns that Azar’s department did not adequately train or provide necessary protective gear to health workers sent to assist Americans flown back from coronavirus hot zones in China and elsewhere last month and quarantined at Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base in California.


The accusations of improper safety protocols, including allowing the health workers to leave the bases, were outlined in a whistleblower complaint from an unidentified official in the Health and Human Services Department. In a statement, the department said it was “evaluating the complaint.”

Further roiling Washington was a White House move to channel all public comments by federal health officials through the vice president’s office. It stoked new concerns that President Trump and his deputies are seeking to withhold crucial information for partisan purposes.

“The American people do not need or want uninformed opinions or spin from its leaders,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday. “They want the truth.”

Democrats hammered administration officials at two congressional hearings Thursday, demanding more details on the public health response.

Those demands took on urgency after officials confirmed that a woman in Northern California with coronavirus was not tested for more than week after she was admitted to the UC Davis Medical Center.

Wider spread of coronavirus “could have begun yesterday,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) angrily told Azar, who testified at a budget hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee.


“The question is whether the administration is moving based on this serious concern, or just putting a happy face on all this, [hoping] it will all go away when the spring flowers come out,” Doggett said.

Azar insisted the administration response was well orchestrated and denied any knowledge of inadequate safety procedures at the California military bases.

Testifying before a House foreign affairs subcommittee, Dr. Robert Redfield, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, sought to strike a balance between reassurance and vigilance.

He said the CDC assesses that the risk of infection “remains low,” but the agency anticipates more so-called community cases, like the patient in California who told authorities she had not traveled abroad or been exposed to someone with the virus.

At this point, her case is the first known infection that was transmitted from an unknown source in the United States. But the extent of community transmission remains a mystery since U.S. public health officials have had limited ability to track the disease.

Lawmakers expressed concern about delays in getting effective testing kits to laboratories around the country after defects with existing lab kits came to light, forcing labs to put testing on hold as the virus spread.


“That was a really, really uncomfortable position to be in,” said Scott Becker, who heads the Assn. of Public Health Laboratories, a trade group.

Azar said more than 40 public health laboratories should be able to use a modified test kit for the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19. He said another test could be sent to 93 public health labs “as soon as Monday.”

There were other signs of progress Thursday.

Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump named Wednesday as his corornavirus response coordinator, appointed Dr. Deborah L. Birx, an expert on HIV/AIDS, to a coronavirus task force, a move that drew bipartisan praise.

Birx, a diplomat who oversees U.S. efforts to combat HIV/AIDS globally, is a well-respected immunologist who has worked at the Pentagon and the CDC.

On Capitol Hill, senior lawmakers said they are close to a bipartisan deal to boost funding for the public health response, with votes expected as soon as next week. The final total is likely to be more than $4 billion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Schumer warned that Democrats won’t support a spending package unless Trump is barred from using the money for anything other than coronavirus. The White House has repeatedly sought to use Defense Department funding to build the president’s border wall.


The Democratic leaders also said they would insist any vaccines are affordable and available to all who need it.

The conditions reflect distrust between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration, whose mixed messages about the coronavirus threat have appalled many public health experts.

Exacerbating the mistrust, the White House decided that all public communications on coronavirus by federal agencies would be coordinated by Pence’s office, according to an administration official.

Under other circumstances, the effort to control messaging, which was first reported by the New York Times, might draw little criticism since public health experts emphasize the need for clear and consistent communication in a public health crisis.

But Trump’s record of attacking scientists and experts and his efforts to downplay the coronavirus risks, even as CDC experts sounded more serious warnings, cast the move in a darker light.

“There’s nothing wrong with a coordinated process inside the federal government to make sure it is sending out clear, fact-based information,” said Dr. Michael Carome, who directs health research at Public Citizen, a leading consumer advocacy group.


“But there’s every reason to suspect something else is happening — that public health experts are being instructed to stay silent because they are sharing truthful information that the Trump administration finds inconvenient,” he added.

Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.