In a testament to the absurdity of the disastrous American response to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the top public health experts in the country on Tuesday denied having been ordered to decrease testing efforts that might help fight the deadly outbreak.
“None of us have ever been told to slow down on testing, that just is a fact. In fact, we will be doing more testing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
In a striking image, Fauci—the public face of the nation’s coronavirus response—described the White House’s “major effort” in combating the deadly virus to mask-clad, socially distanced committee members. Fauci initially read from a prepared statement next to a container of Lysol wipes, antibacterial gel, and a bottle of water.
But Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) opened the hearing on Tuesday by panning President Donald Trump for failing to develop an effective national mass testing campaign. Specifically, he went after him for a much-debated “joke” about deliberately slowing down the nation’s testing initiatives in order to decrease the number of confirmed cases in the U.S.
Trump, while speaking at the first mass indoor public gathering in the nation since pandemic-induced lockdowns began in mid-March, said Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “When you test—when you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people. You're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please.”
Pallone said on Tuesday, “President Trump refuses to even acknowledge the challenge we face.”
Peter Navarro, a senior adviser to Trump, told CNN this weekend that Trump’s words were “tongue-in-cheek,” echoing explanations offered by other White House staffers. But on Tuesday morning, the president threw cold water on that explanation, telling reporters of the alleged joke: “I don’t kid. Let me just tell you. Let me make it clear.”
“We have got the greatest testing program anywhere in the world. We test better than anybody in the world. Our tests are the best in the world, and we have the most of them. By having more tests, we find more cases,” he added.
Fauci, Food & Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield all denied any kind of coordinated test slow-down—or that the president ever ordered such an action. Meanwhile, Fauci confirmed during his testimony that “a disturbing surge in infections” in dozens of states on Tuesday was based on “an increase in community spread”—and that the most effective way to battle those outbreaks involve testing and contact tracing.
Fauci specifically mentioned Texas, Florida, and Arizona.
Later in the hearing, he broadly described what had gone wrong in the United States. “We know what the failings were early on,” Fauci said. “A lack of PPE, a lack of enough N95s.” With more testing, we can get a “much better grasp of the dynamics” to be better prepared for a potential second surge “than we were months ago,” he added.
In what may have been the most contentious exchange of the hearing, Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) asked Fauci if he believed President Trump had been judged unfairly for his response to the virus. Fauci called it “an unfair question” before noting that everyone in the White House “is doing everything they possibly can.” McKinley followed up by asking why Fauci did not “more forcefully” advise the president and the public at large to wear masks earlier on in the pandemic.
“Oh, we're going to play that game?” Fauci responded. He went on to repeat an earlier point: that he made that decision based on a previous national shortage of personal protective equipment, in hopes of keeping medical providers safe.
But even as Hahn affirmed that his agency had not “lost sight of our solemn responsibility to the American people,” the data and science repeatedly referenced by the top public health leaders in the country stood in stark contrast to the days-long debate over Trump’s alleged joke.
As Pallone put it, “There’s two versions of reality here: there’s the president’s and there’s one based on the experts.”
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations panel, said in a statement before Tuesday’s hearing that “it’s clear from the president’s own comments this weekend, as well as his administration’s continued failures to act, that the White House is refusing to take this pandemic seriously.”
Minutes before the hearing began, Trump tweeted that his administration has done “a great job” combatting the virus, “including the very early ban on China, ventilator production, and testing, which is by far the most, and best, in the world.”
“We saved millions of U.S. lives!” Trump tweeted. “The fake news refuses to acknowledge this in a positive way. But they do give Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is with us in all ways, a very high 72 percent approval rating.”