Biden's pandemic team blasted over communications 'mess'

President Joe Biden's top Covid-19 officials draw criticism for mixed messaging on coronavirus

Dr Rochelle Walensky, Director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, left, and Dr.  Anthony Fauci, top US infectious disease expert, testify before a US Senate committee hearing to examine the federal response to Covid-19 and new emerging variants. AP
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Top members of President Joe Biden's pandemic response team were taken to task on Tuesday as senators grilled them about how their messaging has "confused" the American people while the country battles record Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations, long testing queues and ever-changing isolation and quarantine recommendations.

Conflicting guidance on issues such as boosters and testing have left the public baffled about how best to protect themselves, said Republican Senator Richard Burr, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pension.

The administration's booster rollout and the recent update to the quarantine guidance, which saw isolation slashed to five days in some circumstances, were a “mess” and a “disaster,” Mr Burr said in a hearing attended by top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci and Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I’m not questioning the science,” he said, “but I’m questioning your communication strategies. It’s no wonder the American people are confused.”

The Omicron variant has torn through the US since it was first detected in December, leading to a resurgence in the demand for testing.

The Biden administration first promised that the costs of taking a test at home would be reimbursed by insurance companies, but dealing with America's for-profit health bureaucracy can be a time-consuming and tedious task.

Then Mr Biden last month said his administration was buying 500,000 at-home tests to be distributed for free.

But it could still be weeks before those tests are delivered, and Americans have been forced to wait in hours-long queues to pick up tests being distributed by states and cities.

In trying to clarify quarantine guidance, Dr Walensky said those who come into close contact with positive Covid-19 cases should quarantine for five days, adding that they should take a Covid test on the fifth day and continue to wear masks.

The seven-day moving average on new daily Covid-19 cases currently stands are more than 680,000, according to CDC data.

On Tuesday the US reported a record 145,900 hospitalisations because of the virus, placing additional strain on health care workers.

Dr Walensky warned that additional seasonal infections could place an even greater strain on hospitals.

"These stresses likely will be in addition to the ongoing delta variant infections and a rising burden of illness caused by other respiratory pathogens, such as influenza, which have begun circulating at greater frequencies," she said.

Omicron accounted for 98 per cent of all coronavirus cases in the US in the week ending January 8, she added.

Dr Fauci said booster shots are a key tool in protecting against severe symptoms of the Omicron variant, adding that the additional jab strengthens waning immunity from the initial vaccination regimens.

He also addressed the urgent need for the development of a universal coronavirus vaccine.

"Looking ahead in the context of the inevitable continual emergence of new variants, the importance of developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine ... becomes even more apparent," he said.

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Updated: January 11, 2022, 6:48 PM