Politics

Coronavirus response hurt by lack of funding for public health labs, CDC director tells Congress

Key Points
  • Lack of funding has hampered the federal government's response to the coronavirus outbreak, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told lawmakers Tuesday.
  • The hearing in the House was originally intended to address concerns about the CDC's 2021 budget. But lawmakers' questions for Director Robert Redfield focused more specifically on the outbreak.
  • "The truth is we've underinvested in the public health labs," Redfield told lawmakers.
Center for Disease and Control (CDC) Director Robert Redfield testifies before the House Appropriations Committee on the CDC's budget request for fiscal year 2021 on Capitol Hill on March 10, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum | Getty Images

Lack of funding has hampered the federal government's response to the coronavirus outbreak, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told lawmakers Tuesday.

The hearing in the House was originally intended to address concerns about the CDC's 2021 budget. But lawmakers' questions for Director Robert Redfield focused more specifically on the outbreak, particularly regarding the slow rollout of tests across the country. 

"The truth is we've underinvested in the public health labs," Redfield told them.

The tests were initially marred by quality control issues, delaying testing for Americans who were or thought they were infected and prompting some states such as New York to seek emergency approval to use their own test kits.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., was among the lawmakers who questioned Redfield on this point. She noted that her congressional colleagues were able to quickly obtain tests and results, while some of her constituents in Washington, one of the states hardest hit by coronavirus, were still waiting. 

"I find it interesting that when my colleagues," she said, "were able to get tested almost immediately and quickly receive their results while folks in my district and across Washington state are unable to get their testing results back."

Already, 23 have died in Washington, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. At least 19 of those deaths can be linked to the Life Care residential home in Kirkland, according to local official tallies.

Redfield blamed the lack of adequate funding and resources. "There's not enough equipment, there's not enough people, there's not enough internal capacity, there's no search capacity," he said.

The CDC's budget, meantime,  fell by 10% from 2010 to 2019, according to health policy organization Trust for America's Health.

The Trump administration has enlisted private companies to help cut the difference. The CDC is partnering with Integrated DNA Technologies to manufacture the tests under a CDC contract. IDT is partnering with commercial labs, including LabCorp and Quest, for the testing.

Experts, though, have cautioned that because the partnership with private companies is new, it can be difficult to anticipate how quickly they will be able to ramp up production and testing

During the hearing Redfield was also pressed on the CDC's failure to update its website with the number of people being tested every day. 

"Why are we only updating the CDC website now three days a week?" asked Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. "World Health Organization does it daily. This is information people really want to know."

Redfield said the website is now being updated with those numbers daily, adding that the CDC records only the number of people tested by the CDC and by public health labs, not those tested by private labs. As of Monday, Redfield said, 4,856 individuals have been tested by public labs.  

The testimony from Redfield comes amid weeks of conflicting signals sent by the Trump administration and health officials on the way the United States is responding to the outbreak. 

On Monday morning, Health Secretary Alex Azar said in an interview on Fox News that the United States regards the situation with gravity, saying the coronavirus "is a very serious health problem. Nobody is trying to minimize that."

But that same day, as the stock market plunged, President Donald Trump downplayed the impact of the outbreak.

"So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on," he tweeted. "At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

Trump on Friday signed an $8.3 billion spending package aimed in part at supporting research for vaccines and helping support states that are battling the outbreak. The spending package includes more than $3 billion in vaccine research and $2.2 billion in prevention and preparedness efforts.

The coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to dozens of countries globally with more than and at least 4,090 deaths so far, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

There have been at least 761 cases in the United States and at least 27 deaths, according to the latest tallies from Johns Hopkins University. 

The outbreak has roiled markets and led governments to take drastic actions as it rapidly spreads across the globe.