Nobody planned it this way, but a Senate hearing on reopening workplaces and schools safely is turning into a teaching moment on the fickle nature of the coronavirus outbreak.
Senior health officials scheduled to testify in person before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee on Tuesday will instead appear via video link after going into self-quarantine, following their exposure to a White House staffer who tested positive for COVID-19.
The chairman of the committee, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, also put himself in quarantine after an aide tested positive. He’ll participate by video, too.
Even before the gavel drops, the hearing offers two takeaways for the rest of the country, said John Auerbach, president of the nonprofit public health group Trust for America’s Health.
“One thing it tells you is that the virus can have an impact in any workplace setting or any community setting,” said Auerbach. “All businesses will find it very challenging to ensure safety when there are cases.”
Another lesson is that the public officials involved are taking the virus seriously by not appearing in person. “They are following the guidelines that they are recommending to others,” said Auerbach. “There is not a double standard.”
Appearing by video link before the committee will be Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, considered the government’s leading authority on infectious diseases, and FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The three are in self-quarantine. They will be joined by Adm. Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar” at the Department of Health and Human Services.
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The main questions for the administration experts revolve around the “Three T’s,” or testing, tracing and treatment.
Without widespread testing, state and local officials will be basing decisions to reopen businesses and schools on incomplete data with blind spots lurking. Without the ability to do the painstaking work of tracing the contacts of people infected, unwitting transmission will continue. Without effective treatments, hospitals in a given community could be overwhelmed in a COVID-19 rebound. Ultimately, the goal is a vaccine that would offer widespread protection.
It’s all a colossal work in progress, moving in fits and starts.
The health committee hearing offers a very different setting from the White House coronavirus task force briefings the administration witnesses have all participated in. Senators on the panel are knowledgeable and some have working relationships that go back years with the agencies that the panelists are representing. Most significantly, President Donald Trump will not be controlling the agenda.