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Health officials defend administration’s response to Omicron variant

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listened during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants on Tuesday in Washington.Greg Nash/Associated Press

Top federal health officials Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s efforts to protect Americans against the highly contagious Omicron variant as they faced withering accusations from lawmakers about scarce coronavirus tests and confusing guidance on how people who tested positive for the virus could return to normal life.

Joined by the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, called the wave of Omicron cases a “massive, unprecedented surge.”

“This is an extraordinary virus, the likes of which we have not seen even close to in well over 100 years. It is a very wily virus,” one that has “fooled everybody all the time, from the time it first came in, to Delta, to now Omicron,” he said.

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“We’re doing the best we possibly can,” he added.

The nearly four-hour hearing took place at a critical inflection point in the nation’s fight against the pandemic. The coupling of the Delta variant with Omicron has driven an extraordinary climb in cases. More than 735,000 infections are being reported in the United States each day, according to a New York Times database. Modeling scenarios cited in an internal government document obtained by the Times, dated Jan. 5, predict more than 1 million daily confirmed infections by the end of this month.

That number is widely viewed as a vast undercount because of the scarcity of tests and widespread inability of people to report positive results from at-home tests to government authorities.

“It’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is, most people are going to get COVID,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens.”

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Federal and state health officials have been particularly worried that hospitals could be overrun, especially with many staff members out sick and intensive care units still overflowing, including from an earlier wave of Delta cases. On average over the last seven days, more than 135,000 people were hospitalized with the virus, an 83 percent increase from two weeks ago. The nation this week saw a single-day record for the number of hospitalized patients with the virus.

Lawmakers at the hearing were critical of several key parts of the Biden administration’s pandemic response, especially its testing strategy.

“Most Americans can’t make heads or tails of anything coming out of this administration,” Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville said.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, praised the administration’s efforts to supply vaccines and treatments to Americans but said health workers are still spread thinly two years in, and schools are “worried they’ll have to shut down again if they can’t get the support for testing they need.”

Senator Richard Burr, the top Republican on the panel, said the Biden administration had spent months issuing confusing, contradictory recommendations. He cited zigzagging guidance on booster shots and noted that this month Fauci had publicly contradicted Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, in suggesting the agency’s guidance on isolation for those who had tested positive would be revised to include a testing recommendation.

Burr was also harshly critical of the administration’s promise to deliver 500 million rapid tests to the homes of Americans, saying that Biden had pledged to do so without having the tests in hand.

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Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said the scarcity of tests “appears to have been entirely preventable” and that the administration failed to anticipate the need even though Congress allocated billions of dollars for testing efforts.

Dawn O’Connell, the administration’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said that when federal health officials saw Omicron sweeping across South Africa and Europe, “we immediately reached out to our manufacturers to understand any supply constraints they had and to evaluate their surge capacity.”

“We have also met daily with them to make sure that they have what they need from their suppliers,” she said, adding that the Defense Production Act had been used in recent weeks to help free up supplies and manufacturing capacity.

She said the administration in the fall had also invested $3 billion to support manufacturing rapid tests but acknowledged that “that’s not enough.”

The hearing was punctuated again by exchanges in a long-running feud between Fauci and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Fauci angrily accused Paul of making false accusations that are leading to threats against him — all to raise political cash.

Paul has repeatedly said Fauci lies about the pandemic and in a hearing Tuesday also claimed that he tried to “take down” some scientists who disagreed with him.

Paul and other conservative critics have focused their ire at how the pandemic is being handled on Fauci. The public health expert has needed increased security since 2020 because of threats and harassment against him and his family.

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Tuesday, Fauci expressed frustration that this far into the pandemic the senator still “accuses me of things that are completely untrue” and “kindles the crazies out there.”

He pointed to the arrest last month of a California man who was stopped for speeding in Iowa and told a sheriff’s deputy he was on the way to the nation’s capital to kill a list of people in power — including Fauci. Court documents show the man, Kuachua Brillion Xiong of Sacramento, had an AR-15 style rifle, ammunition, and body armor in the car.

Fauci accused Paul of using the pandemic ‘’for your political gain,” he said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.