Top public health experts, including three from Maryland, warned lawmakers on Wednesday that testing and contact tracing efforts will need to be dramatically expanded in order for the country to safely reopen.
They testified in the first hearing before the new U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, a panel that Democrats set up to oversee the federal response to the pandemic.
“We are at a pivotal moment in this crisis,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute at Harvard University. “Our initial response to the pandemic has left more than 80,000 Americans dead and more than 20 million Americans unemployed. As we enter the next phase of this pandemic, we must do better.”
Expanded testing, Jha said, will be critical. “Testing is the cornerstone of controlling every single disease outbreak. It was inadequate testing that precipitated the national shutdown,” he said.
The Harvard Global Health Institute “has calculated that the U.S. needs more than 900,000 tests every day to safely open up again. We’re doing about a third of that.”
Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, laid out conditions that he said should be met to minimize the risk of the outbreak accelerating during reopening.
They include a reduction in cases for 14 days, the capacity for hospitals to give all COVID-19 patients adequate medical care and the ability to test anyone with COVID-19 symptoms. Officials must also have the capacity to isolate cases, trace their contacts and guide them into quarantine, he said.
Inglesby suggested the country could need some 100,000 contract tracers working in states around the country this year.
“If we fail to contact trace effectively, we’ll continue to have new cases appearing in completely unpredictable ways, numbers and places, and the epidemic will grow more quickly,” he said.
Also offering expert testimony: former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who is part of the team of physicians offering public health advice to Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), and Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health and a former Maryland secretary of Health.
Republicans on the newly formed panel accused their Democratic colleagues of setting up the committee to provide a platform to criticize the White House response to the pandemic.
“It’s a committee designed to go after the president,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D), the lone Maryland member on the committee, pointed to the staggering national death toll and job losses caused by the pandemic.
“I can understand our colleagues’ desperate efforts to distract from the crisis and to talk about almost anything else and to plunge us into partisan conflict,” Raskin said of the GOP criticisms, as he urged his colleagues to stay “focused on the task at hand.”