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Top Federal Health Officials Testify In The House On The U.S. Coronavirus Response


More than three months into the pandemic shutting down the U.S., Congress is looking for answers from top health officials. Members of a House committee asked about a range of topics today, from the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization to the president's comments on coronavirus testing. Dr. Anthony Fauci and his colleagues have been less visible in recent weeks as the White House has shifted its focus toward the economic impact of the pandemic. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us now. Hi, Richard.


SHAPIRO: For the past few days, we've been listening to this controversy around President Trump's remarks Saturday night at a campaign rally in Tulsa that he asked his people to slow down coronavirus testing. What did the witnesses today say about that?

HARRIS: Well, that was certainly on the minds of some of the Congresspeople. And the first question on that went to Dr. Fauci, who is a top scientist at the National Institutes of Health. You know, he also serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force. And here's what he said.


ANTHONY FAUCI: To my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing. That just is a fact.

HARRIS: The three other top officials at the hearing agreed with him. In fact, they said they've been trying hard to increase testing along with contract tracing in order to keep the pandemic in check. So, you know, even though Trump continues to say that he'd like to see that happen, he's not getting support from his public health officials.

SHAPIRO: The argument the president seems to be making is that the case count is rising because there is more testing. What did Dr. Fauci say about that?

HARRIS: Well, clearly that is a part of the story, but it doesn't really explain the increase. In fact, what we're seeing is a higher percentage of those tests are coming back positive, which shows that actually, testing is actually revealing more disease. And the disease, in fact, is on the rise. Congresswoman Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, asked whether we should be comforted by the fact that there is a currently falling death rate. And Fauci said no to that as well.


FAUCI: I think it's too early to make that kind of link, Congresswoman. Let me explain. Death's always lag considerably behind cases.

HARRIS: So Fauci says it's likely that the death toll will increase in the coming weeks as a result of this recent increase in cases. Now, you know, it is true that more cases are among younger people, and younger people are at lower risk for death. So we will just have to wait and see how this really all plays out.

SHAPIRO: And what did health officials say about the Trump administration's decision to defund the World Health Organization?

HARRIS: Well, they were clearly not happy about it. Both Dr. Fauci and Robert Redfield, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said they can actually continue to work closely with the WHO despite the White House move. They have been cooperating on dealing with diseases like polio and Ebola. And they say they're still in daily contact with WHO scientists around the world. They're on weekly phone calls with officials and so on. Here's what Dr. Redfield had to say.


ROBERT REDFIELD: There can be limitations on our ability to provide direct funding to the WHO, but we have the ability to provide funding to the operation through different mechanisms so we continue the public health work that we need to get done.

SHAPIRO: Is that surprising?

HARRIS: Well, withdrawing from the WHO is not actually an instantaneous process. You can't just flip a switch. But clearly what these public health officials are saying is they see the continued value of cooperation, and they're going to keep doing it as long as they possibly can.

SHAPIRO: Often at these hearings, we hear Democrats criticize the president and Republicans defend him. Is that what we saw today?

HARRIS: Yes, indeed we did. And, Ari, one of the most memorable moments was when a Republican, David McKinley of West Virginia, tried to get Fauci to defend some of Trump's actions, such as his notable lack of enthusiasm for wearing a mask. Here, listen to this exchange.


DAVID MCKINLEY: As late as March 31, there was no consensus on wearing masks. And the president, as you know, relies on your expertise. Do you now regret not advising people more forcefully to wear masks earlier?

FAUCI: OK. We're going to play that game. Let me explain to you what happened back then.

MCKINLEY: Should be a yes or no.

FAUCI: No, there's more than a yes or no by the tone of your question.

HARRIS: As you can hear, Fauci was surprisingly blunt. He went on to explain that masks were desperately needed for health care workers, which is why federal health officials were not recommending that Americans run out and buy up all the supplies back then.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Richard Harris. Thank you, Richard.

HARRIS: Pleased to be with you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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