Washington, D.C.—Today, U.S. Senator Susan Collins questioned two of the nation’s top public health officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, at a Senate Health Committee hearing about the federal government’s ongoing response to COVID-19. Today’s hearing, titled “Next Steps: The Road Ahead for the COVID-19 Response,” was the Committee’s fourth hearing with federal officials on the pandemic this year.
Senator Collins began by asking Dr. Fauci why COVID-19 is taking such a heavy toll on the State of Maine. Maine is one of the most highly vaccinated states in the country, and 95 percent of Mainers over age 65 have been fully vaccinated. Nevertheless, over the past seven days, Maine has the 15th highest current Covid-19 case rate on a per capita basis and the 22nd highest death rate on a per capita basis among U.S. states. In addition, Maine has recently experienced a six percent increase in hospitalizations, an 18 percent increase in people in the ICU, and a 37 percent increase in people on ventilators.
“First, let me make clear that I believe in the efficacy of vaccines and have encouraged my constituents to become vaccinated,” said Senator Collins. “But I'm hoping you can explain what appears to be a contradiction when I look at the data for the State of Maine. Maine ranks in the top five states in the [percentage] of people…who have been vaccinated. Can you explain to me why a state that has done a terrific job in getting people vaccinated is seeing this surge in cases that is overwhelming our hospitals and causing great fear, and pain, and loss?”
Dr. Fauci responded that Maine’s high caseload is due to COVID-19 infecting unvaccinated populations as well as breakthrough cases among the vaccinated.
Dr. Fauci went on to say, “[A] vaccinated compared to an unvaccinated person has a multifold less likelihood of being infected, a multifold less likelihood of being hospitalized or dying. I think there were probably confounding multiple factors going into the difficult situation that your citizens in your state are going through, but there's no doubt that the vaccines are clearly much better in the sense of protecting you from infection, hospitalizations, or death compared to the unvaccinated.”
Turning to Dr. Walensky, Senator Collins raised the promising “test-to-stay” approach that allows asymptomatic students who test negative for COVID-19 to remain in school rather than quarantining after another student or a staff member has tested positive for the virus. A study in the peer-reviewed British medical journal The Lancet found that case rates were not significantly higher at schools that allowed close contacts of infected students or staff members to remain in class with daily testing than schools that required students to quarantine at home. Senator Collins previously pressed the Secretary of Education to consider this method in September.
“Dr. Walensky, parents, teachers, and pediatricians have all talked to me about the learning loss, the emotional and behavioral health problems, that have occurred among children due to their not being in school,” said Senator Collins. “Brown University professor Emily Oster has expressed great frustration with the CDC being slow to take a stronger position in favor of test-to-stay... Another public health expert said simply ‘It's madness to quarantine school children. The CDC policies hinder learning and provide no meaningful reduction in COVID transmissions.’ My question for you is, why doesn't the CDC issue guidance or recommendations to encourage school districts to adopt test-to-stay in order to avoid these highly disruptive quarantines of students who are asymptomatic and could be tested?”
In response, Dr. Walensky said the CDC is “working with local jurisdictions now to demonstrate the domestic data here in the United States that this practice works, it's safe, it's effective, [and] it gets our children back to school. And importantly, we recognize that jurisdictions are actually doing this and other jurisdictions may want to. And in that context, we're doing peer-to-peer matching of schools that are interested in doing the test-to-stay practice and having them talk to schools that are also doing it so they can use the implementation strategies that a school has already used. So we're actively studying this so that we can provide the data on it working, and we're actively encouraging it as a promising practice.”