Romney: Health Officials Are Scientists, Not Politicians

Highlights role of scientists in the fight against COVID, presses health officials on Administration’s failure to build testing capacity, and requests data-driven testing guidance for the American people

WASHINGTON—During a Health Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) highlighted the important role scientists play in the fight against COVID, pressed health officials on the Administration’s failure to build testing capacity, and requested data-driven guidance for the American people on when they should be getting tested.

Senator Romney’s exchange with Dr. Fauci (NIH), Dr. Walensky (CDC), and HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Ms. Dawn O’Connell can be found below. Video can be found here.

Senator Romney: I want to point out how much I personally—and I believe the great majority of the people in our country—respect you individually and professionally for the work that you do. You are scientists, not politicians.Nevertheless, you are being made subject to the political whims of various political individuals and that comes at a high cost, which unfortunately, I fear, will lead some to not want to participate in helping our government make scientific choices. But I very deeply appreciate your commitment to the American people and your desire to do things as well as we possibly know how to do. That doesn’t mean they’ll be done perfectly. That doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes from time to time. Sometimes it’s that data comes in that is different than you had anticipated, and sometimes it’s because you were wrong. It’s the nature of being a human being, that’s where we are.

I think, unfortunately, the Administration was wrong in not building testing capacity at a time when we all thought COVID was going away. I remember the summer and the fall, going into a drugstore and seeing two rapid tests on the shelf, and those things stayed there for days. No one was interested in buying a rapid test, and apparently the Administration didn’t think it should be aggressively building rapid tests. Omicron came along, caught people by surprise and we were obviously badly mistaken. The Administration was, and we’re suffering in part because of that. Let me ask with regard to Paxlovid. Ms. O’Connell, is that being subject to Warp Speed? My understanding is that Paxlovid is far superior to other oral antivirals. Should we not be much more aggressively producing that and getting that out, such that it can be prescribed?

Ms. O’Connell: Thank you, Senator Romney. We’re in active conversations with Pfizer about how to increase their time limits. My understanding, and the scientists on the panel can feel free to jump in, is that the process required in order to generate this particular antiviral is months long. It’s a chemical process; it’s one that is very, very hard to accelerate. What we have been able to do, is to find additional doses, to work with Pfizer to try to unlock additional capacity where they can find it, and we’re continuing to do that actively.

Senator Romney: Thank you. Dr. Walensky, good to see you again, and I appreciate the chance we had to speak last week. As I’ve looked on the CDC’s COVID tracker report, I note the data goes through November 20th. I remember my days in business, and if we didn’t have daily information, we couldn’t make good decisions. I wonder, do we need to invest in either developing a new sub-agency or a task force to get basically immediate data, daily data so we know what’s going on? And that’s not just for the public, that’s for those of you who are making those decisions. Do we need to do a much better job moving faster and getting data?

Dr. Walensky: Senator, first of all let me thank you for your earlier comments, but also to comment on our COVID data tracker. I think you’re speaking to the 27 jurisdictions that we now compile data that allows those jurisdictions to report together their testing data, their cases data, their immunizations data, their age data, as well as their death data. It’s over two-thirds of the country that we do, and we update that about once a month and it’s about three or four weeks in arrears, so mid-January we will be having data through the end of December. It simply does take that long for our jurisdictions to compile those data. And of course our death data are generally lagging, and it takes a while for those to get reported and adjudicated. So we’re now updating those, and they are about six weeks in arrears and we’re working hard to keep those in real time.

Senator Romney: I note retailers, like Zara for instance, apparently get data and correlate it daily, so I’d hope we could find a way to increase the speed with which we get that data. I know my time is up, but I’m just going to make a comment, and that is that I think it would be helpful if people knew when they should get tested, when it’s called for. Because I think a lot of individuals, myself included, get tested when there’s no indication that I need to get tested, other than to just want to make sure I’m not sick. There’s huge demand for tests which are in short supply, in part because of that. And number two, when you say “when people have been exposed,” please let us know what it means to be exposed. We’re in a room right now, I’m sure someone here has Omicron. Are we all exposed, and therefore need to get tested? What does it mean to be ‘exposed,’ and when do we need to get tested? I wanted to ask that of Dr. Fauci, I can’t do that given my time, but those are topics I’d love to have elaborated on. Thank you.

Dr. Fauci: Well, the CDC guidelines make that very clear, and it is if you are exposed to an individual with known—if you are in a period of 15 minutes at a time, or a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, in a situation where you come into close contact. Perhaps Dr. Walensky could expand on that, but that’s the fundamental core of the CDC guidelines.

Dr. Walensky: That’s exactly right, in terms of the definition of exposure. In terms of who should get tested. You should get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19. If you do a rapid at-home test and you continue to have symptoms and that test is negative, you should do another test or get a PCR. You should get tested within five days of your exposure, or after five days of your exposure, with the definition Dr. Fauci mentioned. We’re testing through tests-to-stay and other mechanisms as well. So, many reasons to test, but really most importantly if you are exposed, if you have symptoms, and also if you’re going into a setting where you might be seeing an immunocompromised person, somebody who is vulnerable, and not able to take a vaccine.