01.11.22

Amid Omicron Frustration and Anxiety, Senator Murray Pushes Administration for a Clear Path Forward to Expand Testing, Keep Schools Open, and Protect Communities

Senator Murray: “We have the tools to get everyone tested quickly, easily, and for free, to keep schools safely open during the Omicron surge, and beyond, to keep workers—especially health care workers—safe and healthy in the workplace.”

 

Senator Murray to the Biden Administration COVID response team: “So what are you doing—right now—to make sure every American can make use of the progress they’ve worked so hard for? What can my constituents expect to see improve this week, and the week after?”

 

***WATCH SENATOR MURRAY’S OPENING REMARKS HERE***

 

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, led a hearing on the federal response to the continuing surge of the COVID-19 Omicron variant across the country, with members of the Biden Administration COVID response team including Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); Dr. Janet Woodcock, Acting Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

 

At the hearing, Senator Murray expressed the anxiety she’s hearing from families in Washington state and across the country amid the surge of Omicron—with people unable to find tests or waiting in long lines, people frustrated and confused about the CDC’s communication of new isolation and quarantine guidance, schools struggling to get support for testing and experiencing staffing shortages, and hospitals under massive strain—with some having to pause non-essential procedures.

 

“People back in Washington state, and across the country, are frustrated and worried about the course of this pandemic, and its persistent challenges—like how hard it is to get a test,” said Senator Murray in her opening remarks. “These are not new challenges—I have been raising many of these concerns since the earliest days of this pandemic. So I'm frustrated we are still behind on issues as important to families as testing, and supporting schools. That’s not to say we haven’t made progress—it’s just clear we haven’t made enough.”

 

Amid these continuing challenges, Senator Murray emphasized that we have the tools and resources we need to effectively respond to this pandemic—including vaccines and boosters, new life-saving therapeutics, and effective masks and ventilation strategies. Senator Murray pushed the Administration to outline how they plan to use these tools and resources—including resources passed in the American Rescue Plan—to keep schools open safely, make testing free and easy to find, protect those at high risk—including kids too young to be vaccinated, people with disabilities, and seniors—and bring safety, certainty and stability back to families. In addition, Senator Murray asked the Administration officials to lay out for families what they are doing to build on the progress we’ve made over the past year with improvements in the coming days and weeks.

 

“People should be able to make plans for the future, without fearing that everything they are looking forward to—or even the everyday things they used to take for granted—will be upended by this virus. We all want that, and we have the tools we need to get us there.  We have the tools to get everyone tested quickly, easily, and for free; to keep schools safely open during the Omicron surge, and beyond; to keep workers—especially health care workers—safe and healthy in the workplace. We have the tools to mitigate this virus, to protect those at high risk—like seniors, kids too young to get vaccinated, people with other health conditions—to get people back to their friends and their lives, and to give families back some certainty and stability,” said Senator Murray. “So what I hope to hear from the Administration at this hearing is: What are you doing—right now—to make sure every American can make use of the progress they’ve worked so hard for? What can my constituents expect to see improve this week, and the week after?”

 

During the hearing, Senator Murray also urged her Republican colleagues—all of whom voted against the American Rescue Plan, and many of whom stay silent on harmful COVID-19 misinformation from their own party—to instead join Democrats in putting workers, parents, and families first and focusing squarely on ending this pandemic. 

 

“When we talk about these problems—we have to be focused on solutions,” Senator Murray continued. “You can’t just say our schools must stay open if you don’t vote to provide additional resources schools need to do so. You can’t just say the latest health guidance is confusing and not call out the blatant misinformation that has come from so many members of the Republican party. We are not going to get out of this crisis by treating each challenge as a political opportunity. We are going to get through it by being honest about what we are facing, and clear about what we are going to do about it.”

 

Senator Murray’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:

 

“Nearly two years into this pandemic, people are exhausted after all we have been through. And even as the Delta strain is still circulating, we are all alarmed by how quickly Omicron has spread, and anxious about what is next.

 

“People back in Washington state, and across the country, are frustrated and worried about the course of this pandemic, and its persistent challenges—like how hard it still is to get a test. I’ve heard from people who are waiting in long lines and going from pharmacy to pharmacy trying to find a test, or who are giving up on getting tested because tests are unavailable or cost too much. I’ve also heard from people who have found the communication about new isolation and quarantine guidance confusing and frustrating. They are trying to keep themselves and their families safe as this pandemic evolves and we continue to learn more.

 

“But I’m hearing more and more questions like: ‘What kind of test should I get and when should I get tested?’ ‘Why can’t I find a test?’ And ‘Do I need to isolate ten days, five days, or even at all?’

 

“Testing in particular is a huge concern for parents who are starting 2022 exhausted from the last two years and worried about schools staying open safely this year.  I know what a struggle it is for parents scrambling to figure out child care when they’ve got to go to work, or how tough it is for kids to keep up with classwork while transitioning back and forth from in-person to online learning. And while most schools are still safely open for in-person learning—and we all want to make sure they stay that way—we know schools are still struggling with this, especially as Omicron creates new challenges.

 

“I’m hearing from schools in my state worried they will have to shut down again if they can’t get the support for testing they need, and continue to have staffing shortages. Nobody wants that, and based on what we now know about this virus and the tools we have to fight it, schools should be able to stay open safely—if they have tests, masks, and ventilation, and people get vaccinated.

 

“Hospitals and health care providers are worried too. They have been stretched thin after two exhausting years, and now Omicron is causing the worst surge in cases and hospitalizations yet.

 

“Because while it may be less severe in most cases—especially for those who are vaccinated and boosted—it is so much more contagious, meaning we are still seeing high rates of hospitalization overall. And we also have to protect children who are too young to get vaccinated, and people with health conditions and with disabilities that put them at high risk.

 

“Back in my state, hospitals are asking state leaders to declare a crisis for our medical facilities. I’ve heard from health care providers in Washington who have been well over their staffed-bed capacity for several days, and are pausing non-essential procedures. Families are wondering whether they can get care for non-COVID related conditions, and alarmed by how long ER wait-times are getting. And health care providers are concerned about how we continue to keep health care workers safe, and also address the fatigue, burnout, and mental health challenges they face.

 

“These are not new challenges—I have been raising many of these concerns since the earliest days of this pandemic. So I'm frustrated we are still behind on issues as important to families as testing, and supporting schools. That’s not to say we haven’t made progress—it’s just clear we haven’t made enough.

 

“But even though we aren’t where we need to be yet, we are not back at the starting line when it comes to COVID-19 either. We have safe and effective vaccines for everyone age 5 and up.  We have booster shots available for those 12 and up. More and more people are getting their shots each day. The Administration is also working to help get the world vaccinated to end this pandemic, and has already pledged over a billion vaccine doses to that effort. We have new, lifesaving therapeutics. We have additional resources Congress passed in the American Rescue Plan—which can help increase our testing capacity, protect workers, and give schools the support they need to safely stay open. And we have an administration that is focused on following the science, facing this pandemic head-on, and addressing the frustration people are feeling.

 

“That is crucial at this moment, when the path forward requires steady leadership and clear communication about the challenges we are still facing, and the work ahead to tackle them.

 

“President Biden has said plainly that he shares families’ frustration around testing, and he wants to make sure schools stay safely open. And he has announced steps to address these challenges by making 500 million tests available free of charge, ordering over 200 million courses of antivirals, expanding manufacturing to be able to make hundreds of millions of tests a month, providing schools with guidance on test-to-stay protocols which can help keep more students in the classroom, standing up more testing and vaccination sites across the country, and providing medical personnel to struggling areas.

 

“I expect to hear more detail on those efforts today—along with what other steps the Administration plans to take. And I will be watching closely as they are implemented.

 

“But I also want to be clear: when we talk about these problems—we have to be focused on solutions. You can’t just say our schools must stay open if you don’t vote to provide additional resources schools need to do so. You can’t just say the latest health guidance is confusing and not call out the blatant misinformation that has come from so many members of the Republican party.

 

“We are not going to get out of this crisis by treating each challenge as a political opportunity. We are going to get through it by being honest about what we are facing, and clear about what we are going to do about it.

 

“And as we continue working to get through this pandemic—it’s important we also look at what we can do to prevent future health crises. That’s why Senator Burr and I have been working in a bipartisan way over the last several months on legislation to learn from, and improve, our pandemic response like: strengthening our supply chain for medical products, updating old and incompatible public health data systems, modernizing the process for developing tests, fighting misinformation, addressing root causes of health inequities, and more. We will be unveiling a discussion draft soon, and I look forward to working with our colleagues to finalize and pass this important package. And in the meantime, we will continue working to address the pandemic at hand.

 

“People across the country are worried this will be another year of uncertainty—uncertainty for their work, their schools, their everyday lives. But there’s no reason it should be.

 

“People should be able to make plans for the future, without fearing that everything they are looking forward to—or even the everyday things they used to take for granted—will be upended by this virus. We all want that, and we have the tools we need to get us there. 

 

“We have the tools to get everyone tested quickly, easily, and for free, to keep schools safely open during the Omicron surge, and beyond, to keep workers—especially health care workers—safe and healthy in the workplace. We have the tools to mitigate this virus, to protect those at high risk—like seniors, kids too young to get vaccinated, people with other health conditions—to get people back to their friends and their lives, and to give families back some certainty and stability. 

“We can do all this now, thanks to incredibly hard work on the part of health care providers and scientists, parents and teachers, workers, and our witnesses here today.

 

“So what I hope to hear from the Administration at this hearing is: What are you doing—right now—to make sure every American can make use of the progress they’ve worked so hard for? What can my constituents expect to see improve this week, and the week after?

 

“We have come a long way since the start of this pandemic. Now, I look forward to hearing from all of you, what you are going to do to build on what we know, bring this virus under control, and bring certainty and stability back to families who are burnt out after two years of fighting this pandemic.

 

“Now I’ll turn it over to Ranking Member Burr for his opening remarks.”

 

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