The federal government needs to assist states with a national strategy for distribution of COVID-19 tests and medical equipment or risk a second surge of the disease, Democratic governors told lawmakers Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis asked Congress for more federal help as states try to track and monitor the disease and brace for its confluence with the flu and cold season next fall.
“I am absolutely worried about flu season, when it comes to supplies and testing and the ability to meet our needs,” Whitmer told lawmakers.
“We don’t want a resurgence of COVID with the flu,” Polis said.
States are beginning to ease some restrictions, but each jurisdiction is developing its own metrics for when to reopen and how to keep residents safe. Most of Maryland began phase one of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s reopening plan in mid-May. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which had higher levels of infection, entered phase one on Monday.
“Because there has not been a national strategy, each of us has developed our own re-engagement strategies,” Whitmer told lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Maryland Democratic Rep. John P. Sarbanes.
Sarbanes asked the witnesses how blood serum tests for COVID antibodies are factoring into states’ response plans. Some experts say the antibody test could be key to re-opening more activities.
“Obviously it has a certain allure to it, this notion that you can discover whether you got the infection and have overcome it and are now in a more robust position,” Sarbanes said.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved 150 different companies to make the tests, which are supposed to measure whether someone was previously infected with the coronavirus and has antibodies against the disease in their blood.
But some early antibody tests have been criticized as inaccurate and ineffective.
The governors in attendance at the hearing said not enough is known yet about the efficacy of the tests, or even what level of immunity antibodies provide.
“I think we are all right to be somewhat cautious about this, but it does have great promise for our strategy in response to the pandemic,” Sarbanes said. “The emphasis rightly remains on the diagnostic test, with all the different needs for supplies.”
Hogan, who was not among the governors testifying on Tuesday, has called the lack of testing in the pandemic’s early months the “number one problem” in addressing the health crisis.
Hogan secured 5,000 kits in April capable of enabling half a million tests after his wife Yumi Hogan — a native of South Korea — helped broker a deal with the Korean government.
Hogan told CNN’s “State of the Union,” on April 19 that the federal government had provided some assistance to states, but governors had been “fighting and clawing to get more tests.”
Hogan announced Tuesday that the state has conducted a total of 366,331 COVID-19 tests. Positive rates have dropped to 10.5%, down nearly 61% from its peak on April 17.
“Current total hospitalizations have dropped to their lowest levels in seven weeks,” Hogan tweeted.
‘We cannot repeat the chaos’
On Capitol Hill Tuesday, Whitmer told lawmakers that more coordination is needed to help states get all the equipment they need for testing and tracing the disease — especially relatively simple items like swabs, masks, and gloves.
“We have paid a price for the fact that these things have not been produced in the United States, and I would just submit that a national strategy to ensure that we have these test kits is the most important thing that the federal government really needs to take the reins on,“ Whitmer said. “Absent a national policy, we have created a shortage and driven up the price.”
House Democrats included requirements for a national testing strategy as part of a sweeping pandemic response bill they approved last month. Senate Republicans have called the ambitious $3 trillion bill “dead on arrival” in the Senate.
“Let’s be clear, the states and the governors on the front lines of this crisis are working around the clock and doing everything they can to address shortages and help their communities, but there is only so much any one governor can do in this global crisis,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the chairwoman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that convened the hearing.
“Without clear, effective leadership from the federal government as more communities reopen this summer and as we head into the fall, we cannot repeat the chaos we saw this spring, with states scrambling for tests and competing with one another for critical supplies.”
Whitmer said help from the federal government was uneven.
“Uncertainty about supplies and the federal government’s role in directing their allocation has really undermined our ability to coordinate our testing strategy,” she said. “Testing supplies were limited and information was scarce and the federal government’s role was narrow.”
Whitmer created a global procurement office as part of her emergency operations center, but had to compete against other states and the federal government.
“When we are procuring these on our own, we necessarily start bidding against one another, and guess who tops all of our contracting ability, it’s the federal government,” she said. “So when Michigan was heating up and exponential growth was happening here, it was the federal government that was where our supplies were getting delayed.”
By Allison Winter