As worry intensifies about the widening gulf between the White House and the scientific consensus on the coronavirus, President Donald Trump has once again this week put himself at odds with his own scientists — in this case, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Wednesday, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee held a hearing in which CDC Director Robert Redfield answered questions about the administration’s plans for a vaccine rollout. The committee also questioned Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary Brett Giroir and Assistant HHS Secretary Robert Kadlec about recent HHS expenditures, with little success.
Redfield stated that a vaccine would not be broadly available to the American public until the “late second quarter, third quarter” of next year, and said the CDC currently lacks the funding to launch national vaccine distribution, saying that the agency needs between $5 billion and $6 billion to implement a comprehensive plan. He also strayed from previous reports that the CDC was preparing for a Nov. 1 vaccine rollout, saying that he didn’t know exactly when a vaccine would be available. While he did indicate that a vaccine could be available as early as November or December, Redfield said that it would be of limited supply and distribution of it would be prioritized for specific groups, such as health-care workers.
In another divergence from Trump’s dismissal of the effectiveness of face coverings, Redfield repeatedly stressed the importance of wearing masks, calling them “the most important public health tool we have.” At one point, he even stated that face masks can be more important than a prospective vaccine. Trump has resisted wearing a mask, mocked mask-wearing, and as recently as Tuesday said that “a lot of people think that masks are not good.”
Redfield’s statements also contrasted with Trump’s repeated claims that a vaccine will be available by the end of the year, or even before Election Day. Sure enough, the president publicly rebuked and rejected Redfield’s statements just hours after the hearing, saying that Redfield “made a mistake” and that a vaccine will be immediately available to the general public, emphasizing that “under no circumstance will it be as late as the doctor said.”
Apparently in response, Redfield’s spokesperson initially stated that the director had intended to say that most Americans would complete their vaccinations around the summer of 2021, rather than that this was when most would be available. However, just an hour later, Redfield’s office rescinded that statement. The national distribution timeline for a vaccine remains unclear.
Multiple Democratic senators also asked questions about the $250 million communications contract awarded by HHS to Fors Marsh Group, which the House Committee on Oversight and Reform began investigating last week. Giroir refused to answer any questions about where the money came from for this contract, saying that public relations were out of his purview. Kadlec, on the other hand, said that he was unaware of the expenditure. Sen. Chris Murphy expressed his frustration, saying, “We’ve got two people at the highest echelon of HHS that can’t answer questions about a massive contract that’s been awarded.”
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