On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), held a hearing, “Leading the Way Forward: Biden Administration Actions to Increase COVID-19 Vaccinations.” Rochelle P. Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID); and Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration all testified before the subcommittee.
In her opening statement, Dr. Walensky reported that as of March 16, 110 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, with 39 million Americans fully vaccinated. Dr. Walensky stated that as of March 12, the weekly average number of cases has decreased by 11% over the previous week’s average, and over the same period the number of deaths has also fallen by 19%. Dr. Walensky noted that while the nation continues to see encouraging news regarding cases and deaths, it is as important as ever to remain vigilant and cautious as emerging strains continue to spread.
Later in her testimony, Dr. Walensky highlighted that building trust in the vaccine is a key linchpin to overcoming the pandemic, noting that the CDC continues to work in tandem with state, local, and tribal health agencies. Dr. Walensky went on to mention that disparities amongst communities of color have been exposed throughout the pandemic, pledging to place health equity as a cornerstone of the CDC’s work. In her statement to lawmakers, Dr. Walensky also pointed to the chronic underfunding of public health as a continued challenge during the pandemic, recommending that federal funding be directed to protect against future threats.
In his opening statement, Dr. Fauci largely echoed Dr. Walensky’s remarks on the state of the pandemic, noting that no corners were cut during the development of the three vaccines currently being administered. Dr. Fauci also pointed to the danger of the emerging variants, noting that the NIAID is working with the SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group (SIG) to detect, monitor, and create countermeasures against the new strains. In the meantime, Dr. Fauci pointed to public health measures, such as masking, social distancing, and avoiding congregate settings, as an avenue to stomp out variants. Dr. Marks added to the other panelists’ sentiments regarding viral variants, warning that as they continue to spread, the effectiveness of current vaccines will be of concern.
Dr. Walensky noted that “building back smarter” denotes long-term, sustained investment in public health—not one time funding. Dr. Walensky cited NACCHO research showing that over 50,000 public health jobs have been lost in the past decade—including the hundreds that have left positions within the last year. NACCHO has been a strong and consistent advocate for increased public health funding and building up the public health workforce throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to questioning from Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) about vaccine hesitancy, Dr. Walensky responded that hesitancy is multifaceted, and approaches to solving the issue must be geared towards the roots of individuals’ objections to the vaccine.