US lawmakers accused the Trump administration of botching its public messaging around the coronavirus outbreak, with some accusing the leader of the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), who was testifying before them on Wednesday, of deferring to the president’s demands and disregarding scientific advice.
“I believe the administration's lack of coordination for the Covid-19 outbreak response is on full display,” US Representative Anna Eshoo, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's health subcommittee, told HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
“Confusion is the enemy of preparedness,” she added. “I think we have some problems with the administration because the professionals say one thing, and then there’s confusion on the other side.”
Azar insisted that America’s risk is low at this moment but “could change quickly”.
“We are working to keep that risk low, but we have always been transparent that we expect more cases in the United States with a rapidly spreading virus, especially with what we have seen,” he said.
There are now 60 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, in the United States. Fourteen involve overseas travel to or close contacts with travellers, three are Americans repatriated from Wuhan, China, and 42 are American passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
On Tuesday, Nancy Messonnier of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that “an outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States is now inevitable”.
According to Politico, US President Donald Trump was “livid” about Messonnier’s remarks since they publicly contradicted the White House’s attempts to make it seem like the situation was under control. They also led to Trump’s decision, announced on Twitter on Wednesday morning, that he would hold a press conference to address the outbreak.
“We're now moving obviously to educate the American medical and public health community that it’s not just China, we have to worry about Italy, Iran and South Korea, so we're continuing to look at our travel alerts,” Robert Redfield, the CDC director, told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The United States has issued a Level 3 alert for Korea and Level 2 for Italy, Iran and Japan.
Worldwide, Covid-19 has killed more than 2,700 people and infected at least 81,250. In efforts to contain the disease, the Chinese government has partially locked down more than 80 cities in nearly 20 provinces, the largest quarantine in human history. A dozen towns in northern Italy have effectively gone into lockdown as well; the country has the highest number of cases in Europe, 374, along with 12 deaths.
But Azar told lawmakers such aggressive measures would not be taken in the US.
“It is very rare those types of cordon sanitaire efforts around cities are effective,” he said. “They usually promote more panic and causing people to actually leave and spread. China is a different government and culture than we have here.”
One lawmaker pointed out that the CDC advised that Americans quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship should not be flown back to the US, but that the warning was overruled by the State Department.
“You're the chairman of the president's task force on the novel coronavirus – who's in charge, are you in charge?” Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, asked Azar.
“I'm in charge, but in Japan, the deputy chief of mission who is the chargé d'affaires made the decision and he had full authority of the president,” Azar said.
“That’s the problem,” DeGette responded. “What if we have an outbreak in the United States, there are a number of other agencies that are going to have other interests. Who is in charge of the final verdict? I think it should be you. There needs to be someone who can overrule Homeland Security and the State who can make these decisions for the American public, based on public health.”
The Trump administration sent a request to Congress on Monday to make at least US$2.5 billion available for preparedness and response, including for therapeutic vaccines, personal protective equipment, state and local public health support and surveillance.
Some Republicans, including Senators Rick Scott of Florida and Mitt Romney of Utah, were among those who called for an independent supervisor to coordinate operations. On Wednesday night, Trump appointed Vice-President Mike Pence as leader of a coronavirus task force.
“This is probably something that justifies having one person in the government who can work cross the various departments and agencies,” Romney said before Trump’s announcement. “It would make sense to have a single person who is in charge of our national response.”
This month, Trump proposed budget cuts of 16 per cent for the CDC and a 10 per cent reduction to HHS’ funding. He also called for slashing US$3 billion from the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the government’s research body that is spearheading the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
The cuts were challenged by Representative Eshoo at the hearing. “Given what our country is facing and what the American people need day in and day out from these agencies, they are the essentials,” she said.
But Azar defended the budget proposals. “The CDC budget actually has a US$135 million increase in the fields of infectious diseases. These will not impact functioning related to coronavirus and of course we have the emergency supplemental request on top of that,” he said.
There is also growing concern about American reliance on China for its drug supply chain, with some experts suggesting that the US is unprepared to deal with a disruption.
Azar said the US Food and Drug Administration was communicating with pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers.
“To date, we are not aware of any expected shortages, but we have to be very alert to this and we have to be candid that there could be disruptions in supplies,” he said.
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