A Capitol Hill hearing on the monkeypox response turned into a sendoff for Dr. Anthony Fauci before he retires in December, with Democrats and a senior Republican hailing his decades of service while Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky squeezed in another round of sparring over COVID-19.
Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray kicked off the sessions by extolling Dr. Fauci‘s career as the top infectious diseases expert at the National Institutes of Health.
“I hope you know that you have the thanks of a grateful nation for your incredible service to this country,” the Washington Democrat said.
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican who is also retiring, said he looks forward to seeing the doctor on the “other side of the mountain” when they can both spend more time with family instead of the chaotic Washington environment.
“I can’t thank you enough for your years of service. It’s been incredibly beneficial to the American people and to the health care of this country. I hate to see you go,” Mr. Burr told the doctor.
It is unclear if Dr. Fauci will appear before Congress again this year but Wednesday marked his first major appearance on Capitol Hill since announcing his plans to depart as the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a post he’s occupied since 1984. During that time, he solidified his reputation as a steady Washington hand in health crises before the coronavirus made him a household name and a polarizing figure.
Mr. Paul, a Republican and vocal critic of Dr. Fauci, accused the doctor of ignoring the impact of natural immunity on the large share of U.S. children who have been infected by the coronavirus yet are being encouraged to get multiple COVID-19 shots.
The senator played an old C-SPAN clip in which Dr. Fauci extolled the powers of natural infection in combatting influenza, saying a female caller who’d caught the flu didn’t need to get vaccinated.
Mr. Paul said prior infection hasn’t shown up in government studies on whether children need the COVID-19 vaccines.
“They only report that if you give them the jab, they’ll make antibodies,” Mr. Paul said.
Dr. Fauci said he never downplayed basic immunology and that Mr. Paul appeared to be blaming him for recommendations made by other agencies.
“I have never denied … the importance of the protection following infection,” Dr. Fauci said. “However, as we have said many times and has been validated by the authorization by the [Food and Drug Administration] through their committee and the recommendation by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] through their committee — that a vaccination following infection gives an added extra boost.”
The doctor said the C-SPAN clip regarded someone who had a bad reaction to a prior vaccine, so he was offering advice to her following infection.
Others gave Dr. Fauci a warmer welcome to what could be his final appearance before the committee.
“I want to add my gratitude to Dr. Fauci for your service to our country during some of our country’s most challenging times,” Sen. Tina Smith, Minnesota Democrat, said.
Dr. Fauci said the latest health crisis — monkeypox — bears a “striking resemblance” to the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, during which Dr. Fauci first rose to prominence. In the 1980s, Dr. Fauci wrote in a medical journal that any assumption the virus would remain in the gay community was misguided.
The lion’s share of the nearly 23,000 cases of monkeypox reported in the U.S. has occurred in gay men, though anyone can catch the virus through close personal contact with an infected person.
Dr. Fauci said a key difference this time is that monkeypox is well-known and there is an approved vaccine for it.
For that reason, members of both parties said they were perplexed why the Biden administration was slow off the blocks in responding to monkeypox, which features a painful rash. It is rarely fatal, though the Los Angeles County Department of Health on Monday said a patient who was severely immunocompromised died after being hospitalized with the disease — the first reported U.S. death from monkeypox.
Monkeypox is endemic to Africa but popped up in the U.S. and other countries in the spring. The rate of new infection appears to be slowing across the country but senators faulted the administration for its slow start to the response.
Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray faulted the administration for delays in freeing up vaccines from a European facility and restoring the national stockpile of vaccines after some shots expired.
She also said members of the gay community still fear they are being overlooked or stigmatized as men who have sex with men account for most of the reported cases.
Ms. Murray also pressed the administration to be vigilant as college students return to dorm life across the country. Officials don’t want to see setbacks at campuses in other settings as the rate of spread slows down and vaccines reach more arms.
“The truth is the monkeypox response so far has not been encouraging. But there are some clear signs of progress and there are clear steps that we can and should take to improve,” Ms. Murray told Dr. Fauci and the heads of the FDA and CDC.
“Patients have spoken out about how hard it is to get tested — some even waited days, despite having clear symptoms,” she said. “Providers have had to jump through hoops to get their patients treatments. And I’m constantly talking to public health officials in my home state of Washington, who have told me how communications with states could have been far clearer — and faster, and how the challenges in accessing tests and vaccines have delayed our response.”
Mr. Burr, who is the senior committee Republican, said he was surprised by the slow response because monkeypox was a known disease and public health agencies should have been prepared for it.
“Why do we continue to be behind?” he said.
Mr. Burr urged officials to be more aggressive in getting vaccines to all gay men, especially those immunocompromised with HIV/AIDS, instead of focusing on subsets of gay men that may be at higher risk.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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