Disease Experts Tell Senate End of Pandemic Is Elusive
WASHINGTON — One day after the United States shattered the world record for the number of coronavirus infections, some of the nation’s top infectious disease experts only cautiously held out hope for an end to the pandemic soon.
One of their concerns is what they described as a likelihood a new variant will emerge that evades all current vaccines and medicines.
“Omicron is not likely to be the last curveball this virus throws at us,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a Senate hearing.
Omicron is the latest variant of COVID-19 to spread since the pandemic reached the United States two years ago. Since last summer, it has become the most infectious form of the disease to sweep through the United States and the world.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is reviewing whether the United States is responding appropriately, now and for any future threats the disease creates.
By Tuesday, the U.S. reported death toll from COVID-19 reached more than 838,000. About 145,900 Americans were hospitalized, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We have to get out of this omicron surge,” Walensky said.
Part of the challenge is staffing for health care facilities, she said. The health care industry is short by about 80,000 trained professionals, which prompted some members of the committee to suggest more funding to hire and train the workers.
Walensky also clarified the CDC’s guidance on how anyone who is infected or exposed to infected persons should respond. The clarification was supposed to clear up conflicting medical opinions.
After recovering from the disease, infected persons should isolate themselves from other people for five days to avoid passing on the virus. They should wear well-fitting masks for an additional five days.
They should avoid traveling for the full 10 days, Walensky said.
If they have come into contact with an infected person but are not showing symptoms, they should isolate themselves for five days, she said.
It was confusion and mixed signals on dealing with the disease that drew some of the ire of senators at the hearing.
“This administration has time and again squandered its opportunities,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
He talked about delays in making COVID-19 tests and booster vaccines available publicly when he said, “The American people are right to be confused.”
Part of the blame fell on Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
Fauci said simple, one-time answers to all questions about COVID-19 were not practical for a virus that has never been seen before and can transform into new variants within months.
“It is a very wily virus,” Fauci said.
His harshest critic during the hearing was Sen. Rand Paul, who accused him of arrogance that interfered with government efforts to control the pandemic.
“You think you are the science,” said Paul, R-Ky.
He also said, “You’re not willing to hear anyone else.”
Fauci said the personal attacks on him by Paul interfered with strategies for addressing the pandemic. He also said they have fueled threats against him and his family.
“What happens when he gets out and accuses me of things that are completely untrue is that all of a sudden that kindles the crazies out there and I have threats upon my life, harassment of my family and my children with obscene phone calls, because people are lying about me,” Fauci said.
In one case, he said police stopped a California man with an AR-15 rifle in his car who admitted he was en route to Washington to kill Fauci.
Fauci accused Paul of trying to use public frustration with him and other health care administrators to gain publicity for his political career.
Tom can be reached at [email protected]
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