WASHINGTON – As states begin to reopen their economies amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Senate Tuesday will be weighing the health risks, including new cases at the White House that forced the hearing to be held by videoconference rather than in person.
The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing titled “safely getting back to work and back to school” comes after the White House announced last week that a valet to President Donald Trump and an aide to Vice President Mike Pence both tested positive for the virus.
Three witnesses for the hearing who serve on Pence’s task force – Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration – are each isolating themselves after coming into contact with someone who tested positive.
And the committee chairman, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, announced Sunday he wouldn’t return to Washington from Tennessee for the hearing as he isolates himself for two weeks because one of his staffers tested positive.
The hearing will explore the balance that state and federal officials must strike between the health of citizens and the economy.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University who won’t be testifying at the hearing, said the keys to reopening society are to adapt to new behaviors to prevent the spread of disease, such as wearing masks, keeping six feet apart and washing hands regularly. Testing and tracing the contacts of infected people are also important to corral the virus, he said.
“The virus knows no bounds. The Secret Service couldn’t keep the virus out of the White House,” Schaffner said. “There are going to be some illnesses. The trick is to keep that at the lowest possible levels.”
Pamela Aaltonen, a former president of the American Public Health Association and professor emerita at Purdue University who isn't testifying at the hearing, said the country would be well-served by a comprehensive, science-based set of national standards that could be modified for different areas of the country. For example, the rules could be different between grade schools and colleges.
“The race to reopen has resulted in much of this work not being done or if done, not communicated,” she said. “Of course, challenging because still learning about this virus and how to inactivate it.”
The decisions will be based on hospitalization rates, death rates, infection rates – and where there are shortages of emergency supplies. The reasons for reopening and the risks must all be explained or the decisions might not be sustainable, Aaltonen said.
“Plans that vary wildly among states, regions, cities may suggest to the public that there is no strong rationale for actions,” she said.