WASHINGTON — The nation’s top health officials say they have not been directed to slow down COVID-19 testing when pressed by lawmakers about President Donald Trump’s recent statements that he suggested fewer tests to reduce the daily increase in case numbers.
In fact, the goal is significantly more testing, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“To my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing,” Fauci said during a Tuesday hearing in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
“It’s the opposite,” he said. “We’re going to be doing more testing, not less.”
Additionally, Fauci told the lawmakers that he is “cautiously optimistic” that a COVID-19 vaccine will be available by the end of the year or in early 2021. He said one potential vaccine from the biotech firm Moderna is entering a Phase 3 study in July.
“I believe it will be when and not if we get favorable candidates with good results, we will be able to make them available to the American public,” he said.
Leading health officials spent more than five hours testifying Tuesday on the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the progress of a possible vaccine and the dangers of a second outbreak during the upcoming flu season. Fauci was joined by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Brett Giroir.
All four said that Trump had never ordered them to slow down testing.
Trump told reporters as he left the White House earlier Tuesday that he was not jesting at his June 20 rally when he revealed that he directed his administration to slow down testing in order to mitigate a swelling national caseload, calling testing a “double-edged sword.”
In his opening statement, Giroir said there would be increased testing capacity in the fall, at the start of flu season. There have been about 27 million tests since the start of the outbreak, averaging about 500,000 tests per day.
“Even without any major technical advancements, I estimate the nation will have the capacity to perform between 40 and 50 million tests per month by fall,” he said.
The health officials warned of a potentially grueling fall and winter as the seasonal flu co-exists with COVID-19. Both are highly infectious respiratory illnesses. Over 120,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 so far, according to the CDC. During the 2016-2017 flu season, 38,000 people died.
“I encourage the American people to be prepared and embrace flu vaccination with confidence for yourself, your families and your communities,” Redfield said. “This single act will save lives.”
Fauci said a key strategy is managing the current outbreak to “baseline levels” so the health system won’t break down as cases naturally reappear with re-opening efforts and flu season. The goal is to contain — identify, isolate and contact trace — any new cases to prevent a second outbreak from spiraling out of control, he said.
“That’s the reason we’ve been saying, all of us, that it’s so important to really get as many people vaccinated from influenza as you possibly can so that you can at least take off the table for many people one of the confounding issues that we’re going to face this winter of two respiratory-born infections simultaneously confounding each other,” he said.