Senator Collins to HHS: “A lack of federal orders for tests between January and September of 2021 caused the manufacturers to reduce their lines and lay workers off, including at Abbott facilities in the State of Maine where 400 workers were laid off.”
Washington, D.C.—U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Health Committee, questioned top public health officials at a hearing titled, “Addressing New Variants: A Federal Perspective on the COVID-19 Response.” This was the Committee’s fifth hearing with federal officials on the COVID-19 pandemic in the 117th Congress.
Witnesses testifying today included Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Janet Woodcock, Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and Dawn O'Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Senator Collins began by asking Ms. O’Connell about how the Administration’s reallocation of funding, which was originally allocated for testing, to the crisis at the southern border has impacted the ability to prepare for and quickly ramp up testing during the Omicron surge.
Senator Collins said: “Over the past two years Congress has appropriated $82.6 billion specifically for testing. In addition, we've given the Department flexibility to use other sources of funding. And yet, as you've heard repeatedly today, our frustrated constituents cannot find rapid tests when they need them. This testing crisis appears to have been entirely preventable, as is evidenced by the availability, the widespread availability of rapid tests in Europe, for example. The fact is that it appears the Administration simply failed to anticipate our testing needs, as the former Assistant Secretary of Health recently pointed out, a lack of federal orders for tests between January and September of 2021 caused the manufacturers to reduce their lines and lay workers off, including at Abbott facilities in the State of Maine where 400 workers were laid off. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I share the concerns that have been expressed by Senators Burr and Blunt. I don't believe that we're in the position that we are in now, due to a lack of funding, but rather a lack of planning. My question to you is, has any of this funding that's close to $83 billion that was supposed to be used for testing been diverted for other purposes?”
Ms. O’Connell responded: “Testing remains a priority for this Administration. And all the work we've done on testing has been to promote the priorities of expanding the number of testing sites available, expanding the type of tests that are available for use in the United States, expanding the supply of tests in the United States, and lowering the cost of tests…. The testing money, as you recall, was for testing, contact tracing, and mitigation efforts, and some of the funds have been used for mitigation efforts. For example, when children are crossing the border, you know, one of the responsibilities that we have within HHS is to make sure that…the children that are unaccompanied are cared for, and we used some of the funds to test those children. And then to separate them from COVID negative children at the border.”
Senator Collins admonished Ms. O’Connell for not answering her question and providing the amount of funding intended for testing that was instead reallocated for the southern border. She cited figures from an investigation by the Committee, which found that $850 million allocated for testing and another $850 million allocated for the national stockpile was instead used to deal with the crisis at the southern border.
Senator Collins said: “The fact remains that if we had the southern border under control, we would be using the $850 million designated for testing to buy more rapid tests. We would be using the money out of the stockpile, the $850 million for the purposes for which it was intended. So I think that this is a problem that has contributed to the shortage of testing, the uncontrolled crisis at the border. But I also am perplexed by the lack of federal orders for tests between January and September of 2021, which I know from my experience in Maine, caused a major manufacturer Abbott to lay off 400 workers that were producing those tests because it lacked the federal orders that makes no sense to me and seems very short sighted.”
Senator Collins also asked Dr. Fauci to comment on the increase in COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated individuals:
Senator Collins said: "Dr. Fauci, just last week the President once again said that COVID-19 is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And let me make very clear that I've encouraged vaccinations; I believe in them. But contradicting the President's statement, in Maine our largest health system reported that absences of vaccinated staff caused by COVID-19 last week was at the highest point since vaccines became available. This increased by fourfold. Does the message that COVID is a pandemic of the unvaccinated still hold true with the emergence of Omicron? And do you agree with the New York Times, which has twice reported that while the COVID vaccine is critical in preventing hospitalizations and death, it is less effective against the Omicron variant?
Dr. Fauci responded: “Yes, indeed it is. There's no doubt that the Omicron variant when you look at the protection against symptomatic disease, an asymptomatic infection dramatically goes down to about 30 percent…it's about 70 percent against severe disease. When you boost…what happens is you get a rather significant reconstitution of the protection, particularly against hospitalization. So if you were to say that Omicron, or even COVID-19 as it is, is really a pandemic when you're talking about a pandemic that causes serious disease, there's no doubt that there's an extraordinary divergence of risk between a vaccinated and unvaccinated person in response to the question just a bit ago, when I said that if you look at vaccinated versus unvaccinated, there's a 17 times greater chance of being hospitalized and a 20 times greater chance of dying if you are unvaccinated versus vaccinated.”