Top federal health officials on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s efforts to protect Americans from the highly contagious variant of Omicron as they faced lackluster accusations from lawmakers over rare coronavirus tests and confusing guidance about how people who test positive for the virus can return to their normal lives.
Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, who was joined by the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, described the wave of Omicron cases as a “huge and unprecedented increase.”
“This is an extraordinary virus, the like of which we have not seen in over 100 years. It is a very cunning virus,” he said, “it fooled everyone all along, from the time it first appeared, to Delta, to now Omicron,” he said.
“We are doing our best,” he added.
Lawmakers at the hearing said the government had failed to accommodate the country’s need for virus tests, and would only be able to deliver on its promise to supply half a billion of them after the current surge peaked, spoiling important public health messages.
The nearly four-hour hearing took place at a critical inflection point in the nation’s battle against the pandemic. Coupling of the Delta variant with Omicron resulted in an unusually high incidence. More than 735,000 infections are reported in the United States each day, according to the New York Times database. Modeling scenarios cited in an internal government document obtained by The Times, dated January 5, indicate more than 1 million confirmed infections per day by the end of this month.
This number is widely seen as a much lower number due to the paucity of tests and the widespread failure of people to report positive results from tests at home to government authorities. Although the true number of infections is unknown, Biden administration officials acknowledge that the nation will be overwhelmed with positive tests for the virus, even if symptoms are often mild.
“It’s hard to address what’s really going on right now, which is that most people are going to get Covid,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration, offering one of the most indicative acknowledgments of any federal government official since the Omicron hit. She added, “What we have to do is make sure that hospitals, transportation, you know, keep working, and other essential services aren’t disrupted while that’s happening.”
Federal and state health officials have been particularly concerned about the potential for hospitals to be overrun, especially with many staff outside intensive care and sick care units still crowded, including from an earlier wave of Delta cases. On average over the past seven days, more than 135,000 people have been hospitalized with the virus, an 83 percent increase from the past two weeks.
This week, the nation saw a record one-day number of hospitalized patients due to the virus. Hospitalization totals include people who have had the virus symptomatically after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19, but there is no national data showing how many people are in this category. Senior administration officials said in interviews Monday that infections and hospitalizations are expected to peak by the end of January, then decline sharply.
When asked on Tuesday if he was concerned about the nation’s fight against the virus, Mr. Biden said he was “worried about the pandemic, just because around the world it’s not slowing down much.” He added that federal officials are working to help states and hospitals. “I’m confident we’re on the right track,” he told reporters before leaving to deliver a speech in Atlanta.
At the hearing, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, a senior Democrat on the committee, praised the administration’s efforts to provide Americans with vaccines and treatments, but said health workers have still been thinly spread out two years ago, and schools “are concerned that they will have to close.” down again if they can’t get the support for the testing they need.”
Senator Richard Burr, the committee’s largest Republican, said the Biden administration has spent months issuing confusing and contradictory recommendations. Citing zigzag guidelines on booster shots, he noted that this month Dr. Fauci had openly contradicted Dr. Rochelle B. recommendation.
“Most Americans can’t make heads or tails of anything that comes out of this administration,” said Senator Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican. “Sometimes no one seems to be responsible.”
Burr has also been highly critical of the administration’s promise to provide 500 million rapid tests to Americans’ homes, saying that Mr. Biden has pledged to do so without the tests on hand.
Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the dearth of testing “appears to be entirely preventable,” and that the administration failed to anticipate the need even though Congress has appropriated billions of dollars for testing efforts.
Dawn O’Connell, the department’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said that when federal health officials saw Omicron sweeping across South Africa and Europe, “we immediately reached out to our manufacturers to understand any supply constraints they had and to assess their ability to ramp up capacity.”
“We also met with them daily to make sure they get what they need from their suppliers,” she said, adding that the Defense Production Act has been used in recent weeks to help free up supplies and manufacturing capacity.
In the fall, she said, the administration also invested $3 billion to support rapid manufacturing tests, but acknowledged that “that’s not enough.”
She said that while some of the half a billion government-purchased tests will be sent to Americans by the end of January, it will take two months to distribute the rest. By then, as one senator noted, Omicron’s surge will likely have peaked for a long time.
Ms O’Connell said only 50 million of the 500 million tests promised have been purchased so far, although more agreements will be announced in the coming days.
Adel Hassan And Albert Sun Contribute to the preparation of reports.