The Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions Committee’s bipartisan group of legislators criticized the reaction of public health officials to the monkeypox outbreak, with Republicans indicating that they would oppose funding increases for a number of government agencies.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Head of the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the White House, Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Dawn O’Connell, assistant sec. of health and human services, all testified for more than two hours about the virus. All four witnesses were upbeat about the Biden administration’s approach to monkeypox, but the majority of senators disagreed. The CDC reports 22,630 cases of monkeypox in the United States, although no one has perished as a result of the infection.
On August 4, more than two months after the first case was reported in the U.S., HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra declared a public health emergency for monkeypox, according to CNBC. Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, questioned whether an emergency declaration was even necessary given the absence of fatalities and the federal government’s prior reluctance to proclaim a state of emergency.
Braun questioned Walensky about how the CDC determines to proclaim public health emergencies and said, “I’m worried that they won’t be taken seriously.”
Walensky justified the choice by pointing to the “increasing number of new cases,” adding that the declaration makes “more funds and additional resources” available.
According to O’Connell, the emergency declaration gave the neighborhood “a vital signal. It complemented what the WHO does.”
She continued, “In the end, the Secretary will decide.”
Washington committee chairwoman Patty Murray slammed the administration’s failure to increase the supply of monkeypox vaccine, calling the public health strategy full of “severe missteps.” For vaccine outreach, public health officials are specifically targeting gay males, who account for 97% of cases. In addition, O’Connell remarked, smallpox vaccines have been substituted for those for monkeypox.
When speaking about the recent outbreak, Fauci repeatedly linked monkeypox to HIV/AIDS and emphasized the need to “prevent stigma.” In the 1980s, the federal government’s response to HIV/AIDS was spearheaded by the departing director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. For how he handled that crisis, Fauci received harsh criticism from activists.
“After spending the previous two and a half years addressing COVID-19,” she added, “this is occurring at a time when problems are landing on public health departments and employees that are fatigued and burnt out. It’s been somewhat compounded, in my opinion, by the dept’s difficulties monitoring vaccine supplies through VTrckS and the sudden arrival of monkeypox vaccines.”
Walensky urged senators to support President Joe Biden’s budget proposal, which would give public health organizations $22.4 billion for COVID-19 responses and $4.5 billion for monkeypox responses. The director of the CDC continued, “Monkeypox will remain a global menace.”