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Coronavirus Update: House Appropriations Subcommittee Assesses Coronavirus Response

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today on Capitol Hill, a House appropriations subcommittee heard from two public health experts about the nation's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delivered this blunt assessment.

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TOM FRIEDEN: And sadly, looking at the U.S. as a whole, just calculating forward from the number of people whose infections have already been documented, there will be tragically at least 100,000 deaths from COVID by the end of this month.

CHANG: Meanwhile, President Trump held an event to honor nurses in the Oval Office today. He put the country's losses in context this way.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We went through the worst attack we've ever had on our country. This is really the worst attack we've ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center. There's never been an attack like this.

CHANG: All right. To talk more about all of this, we're joined now by NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin and political correspondent Scott Detrow.

Hey to both of you.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.

CHANG: Selena, let's start with you. You watched the House hearing today. It is the first hearing in weeks on the House side. What did that hearing even look like with everyone all spread out?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. This was the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees Health and Human Services. And it did look really different than congressional hearings normally do. There were only a handful of lawmakers there, with empty seats between them. Most wore cloth masks and took them off when they were speaking. And there was tape marked on the floor showing where chairs should be to space them out. Missing from the hearing were more than half of committee members who could not come to Washington for various reasons. And on the witness stand, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the lead infectious disease scientist at the National Institutes of Health and a coronavirus task force member - Trump apparently barred him from testifying in the Democrat-controlled House. And several members noted that, including Republican Tom Cole, the ranking member from Oklahoma. Here is what he said in his opening remarks.

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TOM COLE: And I want the record to show I joined the chairman in urging that Dr. Fauci be allowed to testify here. I think it would have been good testimony, useful to this committee and, I think, useful to this country.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The White House pushed back on this characterization today, calling it a stunt.

CHANG: A stunt - all right, so no Dr. Fauci. The witnesses today included Dr. Tom Frieden, as I just mentioned earlier, and also epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers from Johns Hopkins University. Give us a sense of what their testimony was like today, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Both witnesses really emphasized that this virus is extremely challenging. Frieden, at one point, pointed - referenced a quote that microbes outnumber us, and we need to outsmart them. They both said public health must lead the way as we approach the second phase of our coronavirus response. And Rivers made a few really interesting points. She said we need our surge capacity for things other than the coronavirus, especially as hurricane season starts up. That is a concern. She also talked about contact tracing, a subject I've been following really closely. That's where every positive case's close contacts who may have been exposed are asked by public health officials to quarantine.

She made the point that contact tracing is a key source of data so we can better understand what kinds of contacts are likely to result in infection. So do outbreaks in nursing homes and prisons spread to the greater community? Or if a positive patient is very likely to spread to members of their household, should hotels be made available for people to isolate and stop that spread? - some really important questions we need to answer. And the subcommittee chairwoman, Democrat Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, also vented frustration that months into this, there still isn't a lot of coordination on the federal level for personal protective equipment and more. Here is what she said.

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ROSA DELAURO: We do not have a national testing plan. We do not have a national contact tracing plan. We do not have PPE, and the American people are scared.

CHANG: Well, those sound like issues for the White House coronavirus task force to handle. But the vice president said yesterday that that task force would start winding down. And then today the president said he had changed course. Scott Detrow, I feel like I ask this a lot to you...

DETROW: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...During these roundtables. What's going on there with this course reversal?

DETROW: And my answer often begins this way. This is the latest example of the White House suddenly reversing course on messaging and strategy. So yesterday, both Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump said the task force would be wrapping up its work soon. And Pence even gave a timeline. He said it would be done around Memorial Day. The president said this is part of a broader shift in focus more toward economic recovery. But today he changed his mind. And President Trump actually indicated that the way that announcement was received played a role in this reversal.

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TRUMP: I felt we could wind it down sooner. But I had no idea how popular the task force is until, actually, yesterday. When I started talking about winding it down, I'd get calls from very respected people saying, I think it would be better to keep it going. It's done such a good job. It's a respected task force.

DETROW: So he says instead that now he's going to add some new members to the task force. And all this matters because this task force has been the main way the public has gotten messages from the White House and the federal government on this pandemic.

CHANG: Right. But apart from that messaging function, what would you say is the practical purpose of extending the task force until whenever?

DETROW: It's still a little unclear. We do know that this means that key advisers like Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx will still have a formal seat at the table. We don't know, though, whether we will still see those regular briefings that became the most high-profile thing the task force did. What this does not change is a clear trend we have been seeing from the White House, which is a focus on economic recovery and reopening the country. President Trump was pretty blunt about this during yesterday's visit to Arizona. He sees that as worth prioritizing, even though there would likely be health consequences.

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TRUMP: I'm not saying anything is perfect. And yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.

DETROW: And this focus comes even as people are still being infected and are still dying. But the president is eager to turn the page when it comes to both the politics and the messaging.

CHANG: Right. Selena, we mentioned that Dr. Fauci didn't testify in the House hearing today. We got used to seeing him a lot at all those daily briefings for the coronavirus task force. These briefings have stopped happening, so what do you know about Fauci's role going forward?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes. He is one of the most recognizable and trusted sources of scientific guidance here. He did make a television appearance earlier this week. And Trump did say today that he will remain in the same role on the task force for now. He also does have the green light to testify in the Republican-controlled Senate next week. That is scheduled in the Senate Health and Education Committee next Tuesday, so that is an opportunity for the public to hear from him at length.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin and political correspondent Scott Detrow.

Thanks to both of you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you, Ailsa.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.