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Health Officials Convene Before Senate Panel

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The last time that Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before Congress, it was the middle of March. And he said the coronavirus would change American life. That turned out to be true. Today, Fauci is back to testify before a Senate panel. And as a sign of just how much things have changed, neither Fauci nor the other witnesses are there in person.

They're testifying remotely after several were exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. In fact, even the committee chairman is testifying remotely - or is conducting the hearing remotely. The hearing got under way in the last hour. And NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been following it also remotely, as I understand, Sue. Is that right?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: (Laughter) That is correct, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank goodness for video. It would be a different world without it, that's for sure. So what has the scene been like, to the extent that there is a scene?

DAVIS: Well, it certainly shows just how different things have changed on Capitol Hill as well. You know, the hearing is still taking place inside a hearing room. Although, everyone - all of the people testifying are testifying via video conference. As you noted, the chairman, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, also doing that.

But several senators are in the room. They've socially distanced. They're six feet apart. They're wearing masks when they're within six feet of each other. There's minimal staff in the room. It's been closed to the public, which is very different than congressional hearings - almost always open to the public. And it sort of sets the tone for what is a fairly somber affair of an update of how the coronavirus pandemic has been affecting the country.

INSKEEP: At least the public can peek in from the outside through a video screen. What are they hearing? What are we hearing from the health officials?

DAVIS: Well, you know, first up was Dr. Anthony Fauci, who many lawmakers have been eager to hear from. And he gave an update on the efforts to find a vaccine. And this is what he told the panel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: We have many candidates and hope to have multiple winners. In other words, there's multiple shots on goal. This will be important because this will be good for global availability if we have more than one successful candidate.

DAVIS: Rather optimistic there that there could be more than one vaccine. Although, he did say that even in the most ambitious timelines, late fall, early winter would be when they would have some kind of sense of whether any of these current treatments could lead to a vaccine. There was...

INSKEEP: But I want to mention also - when he talks about multiple vaccines, that's a desperate need because there are multiple nations here. And if the vaccine was developed in China or India or the U.S., that country is going to want first claim on it. You're going to want multiple vaccines. Anyway, go on.

DAVIS: Yes, and certainly to get it to scale to the people that would need it. Having multiple...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Treatments makes that easier. Dr. Redfield, who's the head for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also told lawmakers, you know, this is a wakeup call for the country. And it's not just about this pandemic. It's about sort of rethinking our entire health system. And this is what he told them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT REDFIELD: We need to rebuild our nation's public health infrastructure, data and data analytics, public health laboratory resilience and our nation's public health workforce. Now is the time to put it in place for the generations to come, not only for the public health system that our nation needs, but for the public health system our nation deserves.

DAVIS: He obviously did not put a dollar figure on that. But any sort of dramatic remaking of the public health system would, of course, be very expensive and not necessarily something that lawmakers want to hear right now after they've just spent nearly $3 trillion trying to keep the country afloat.

INSKEEP: Oh, and a reminder we're spending one-fifth or one-sixth of all of our income on health care and still did not have what we necessarily needed for this particular emergency. Now, what are senators asking these officials?

DAVIS: The big question - and I think it's shared across the aisle - is this question of testing and testing capability, not just how many tests are out there, but how quickly we can get test results back, and the view that until we have that vaccine - if and when we have that vaccine - testing is the way that you can get, quote, "back to normal." And Dr. Brett Giroir, he's the head of the U.S. public health service, gave an update on where those testing capacity figures at. He's been running the effort for the Trump administration. And this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRETT GIROIR: So by September - taking every aspect of development, authorization, manufacturing and supply chain into consideration - we project that our nation will be capable of performing at least 40 to 50 million tests per month if needed at that time.

DAVIS: Now, that's a dramatic scale up of where we are now. Although, he did say that the country has made great strides in testing. But that's the capacity of testing that you would need to have things like people feel more confident about going into public spaces or getting kids back to school. The chairman, Lamar Alexander, asked when - what would he tell his school chancellor about getting kids back to school this year? And Dr. Fauci told him, look; you're not going to have a vaccine this year. So testing capabilities and social distancing are really going to be the only path forward for right now.

INSKEEP: Susan, thanks for the update.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.