WASHINGTON—The Trump administration’s top health officials trekked to Capitol Hill this week to answer tough questions about how they’ve handled the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, adding that the United States is still in the first wave of the pandemic even though some parts of the country have declining case numbers. “In other areas of the country, we’re now seeing a disturbing surge of infections. The next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address the surges we’re seeing.”
On Wednesday, health officials reported 36,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, marking a single-day record. The same day, seven states—Arizona, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas—reported new highs of coronavirus-related hospitalizations.
The federal government’s coronavirus response came under renewed scrutiny following President Donald Trump’s rally on Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., where he attributed the rise in recorded U.S. cases to increased testing. The president claimed he told health officials to “slow the testing down.” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany attempted to clarify Trump’s remarks on Monday, saying the comment was “made in jest.” The president doubled down that same day, telling a reporter, “I don’t kid. … We have got the greatest testing program anywhere in the world.”
Fauci and other witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing said no one in the Trump administration ever directed them to reduce testing. The United States has conducted about 27 million tests since the coronavirus first arrived in January. Since then, nearly 2.4 million people have tested positive, more than 122,000 have died, and close to 650,000 have recovered.
Squeezed by health concerns on the one hand and dire economic news on the other, the federal government has taken a decentralized approach to the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for states, but the president has stayed away from countrywide, top-down mandates.
Camille Busette, a senior fellow of governance at the Brookings Institution, said the approach may have caused the United States to lose time quashing infections. She said Congress and the White House should proactively coordinate their responses to the pandemic’s medical and economic crises going forward.
“We do need more coordination around how we open up and how it is that we are going to deal with spikes in cases,” Busette said. “That’s an area the administration could be much more hands-on.”
Fauci told the House committee he does not believe states need to implement another total lockdown despite the increasing spread of the virus in some areas. He said if states run into trouble going from “phase one to phase two” of reopening, “they may need to go back to phase one.”
On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, paused his state’s reopening plan because COVID-19 patients began to fill intensive care units in bigger cities. Open businesses do not have to close, but they cannot return to full capacity as soon as expected. Abbott also ordered elective surgeries canceled in the Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio areas to hold hospital rooms open for coronavirus patients.
In the northeastern United States, the governors of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York this week said travelers arriving from states with high infection rates should quarantine for 14 days. North Carolina, California, and Washington state announced they will require residents to wear face coverings in public. And Virginia released rules for businesses to follow for employees’ safety, the first such employer-based coronavirus regulations in any state.
On Wednesday, local health officials reported the number of COVID-19 cases in Tulsa County, Okla., hit a new high. But Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a Republican, did not attribute the 259 new infections to the president’s rally or protests.
“It’s from people going to weddings and funerals and family gatherings and bars and other things like that,” he said.
The Tulsa Health Department recommends that anyone who attended a mass gathering get tested.