White House COVID-19 Task Force On Progress Toward Safely Getting Back to Work, School
As communities across the nation continue to work on plans to safely re-open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) today took part in a Senate HELP Committee hearing focused on how to safely return to work and back to school. The hearing featured Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, Admiral Brett Giroir of HHS, FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. How the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has used appropriated funding to date was also a focus during the hearing.
Senator Murkowski began her remarks by discussing the situation facing Alaska’s seafood processing industry. She asked each witness for their input on which agencies can best help facilitate the seafood processors in terms of implementing specific safety protocols, including the high costs of doing so.
“We have seen the benefit of how these very rigorous plans have worked. An individual who comes up to work in the seafood processing facility is tested before they come to the state. They are tested when they get to the state. They are put in a 14-day quarantine. We have seen positive cases once people have arrived, but we have been able to do what the plan calls for which is contact tracing and isolation, keeping things to a minimum. So I think it does demonstrate that these plans really can work. They are expensive though. If you are bringing in several hundred or perhaps 1,000 workers and you have to put them up in a hotel for 14 days—with pay—when you have to provide for the health protocols, this is costly,” said Senator Murkowski. “We do receive some benefit from the discretionary funds provided to the states, but I think we would all recognize like the meat packing facilities, our seafood processors, are an important and critical industry not only to Alaska, but to the country. So we want to work to address that.”
Senator Murkowski also spoke to her concerns surrounding America’s current public health IT infrastructure, specifically technology to enable efficient contact tracing.
“I am told that in Alaska as we are doing our contact tracing it is still a paper copy, excel spreadsheet, faxed to the epidemiology labs. This is how we are doing our tracing. I thought that maybe this was just Alaska, but I am told by Dr. Zink who you have all had conversations that this is actually going on in California as well. That to me is not a contact tracing system that works and is sufficient,” said Senator Murkowski.
Murkowski went on to ask Dr. Redfield to comment on his view of contact tracing’s current sufficiency. Dr. Redfield thanked Senator Murkowski for raising the topic of public health infrastructure and discussed the importance of modernizing the systems we currently have in place.
“I think it’s really important to highlight what you said about the current state of data systems for public health in United States—that they really are in need of aggressive modernization. And again, we thank Congress for the funding there. But it is a substantial investment that needs to take place. There are a number of counties are still doing this pen and pencil, as you commented, and we need to have a comprehensive, integrated public health data systems that’s not only able to do something that’s in real time but actually can be predictive. And it would be one of the great, I think, investments of our time to make that happen once and for all. And that’s really fundamental to be able to operationalize a contact tracing,” said Dr. Redfield.
Senator Murkowski ended her comments with a question for Dr. Fauci regarding the public’s mistrust of vaccines in certain parts of the country. Murkowski emphasized her concern that once a successful vaccine is found, there may be hesitation from parts of the general public to become vaccinated. Dr. Fauci shared the efforts already underway to embed a community engagement program within the sites that will have vaccine trials and emphasized the need to engage with populations that have traditionally been underserved, particularly minority populations.
“We are thoroughly aware of what you’re concerned about and it is a reality. The lack of trust of authority, a lack of trust in government, and a concern about vaccines in general. We need to engage the community with boots on the ground and getting community—particularly those populations that have not always been treated fairly by the government—minority populations, African-Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans. And we have a program that’s already operable right now to do that,” said Dr. Fauci.
- On June 24, Senator Murkowski participated in a Senate HELP Committee hearing focused on lessons learned from the COVID-19 response thus far, and the actions Congress should take to improve U.S. pandemic preparedness and response capabilities.
- On June 17, Murkowski joined a Senate HELP Committee hearing focused on telehealth services and the lessons learned from the pandemic regarding this form of health care delivery.
- On June 10, Senator Murkowski participated in a Senate HELP Committee hearing on going back to school safely for K-12, with a focus on ensuring all students receive the academic, technological, health, and social-emotional support they need to succeed. The hearing also focused on addressing the needs of homeless students.
- On June 4, Senator Murkowski took part in the Senate HELP hearing on going back to college safely during COVID which focused on how institutions of higher education are preparing for students, faculty, and staff to return to campus this fall.
- On May 12, Murkowski joined the Senate HELP Committee for a hearing titled “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.” The hearing focused on how U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agencies are working to help states and communities prepare to reopen in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including efforts to increase testing, accelerate research, develop treatments and vaccines, and provide public health and safety guidance.
- On May 7, the Senate HELP Committee held a hearing titled “Shark Tank: New Tests for COVID-19.” The hearing focused on the current status of testing for the COVID-19 virus and how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) are working to support the rapid development of new tests for COVID-19, through the NIH Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) Initiative and other programs.
COVID-19 SAFETY NOTICE:
In accordance with the U.S. Senate’s Attending Physician and the U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Senate hearings have enacted the following adjustments to help ensure the health and safety of all participants during the COVID-19 pandemic: Members were seated six feet apart to respect social distancing guidelines; Participants were given the option to take part in the hearing by video conference; To maintain social distancing, very limited seating was accommodated; Members wore masks to and from the hearing room, but were allowed to remove masks during the hearing, if they chose to do so, as they were seated 6 feet from other members.