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Fauci, Walensky push COVID-19 vaccinations, defend CDC messaging, in heated Capitol Hill hearing

(WASHINGTON) — The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rachel Walensky, testifying before the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday, painted the next stage of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as a race between the virus and its vaccines.

The hearing comes hours after the Food and Drug Administration authorized coronavirus vaccinations for children ages 12 and up, widening the U.S. population that will be protected against the virus and bolstering chances for a safe return to full-time school in the fall.

Asked what she would say to parents who are considering getting their kids vaccinated now, the CDC director, while acknowledging some parents may not want to be first in line, said she would encourage all parents to get their children vaccinated and for children to ask for the shot.

“I recognize some parents want to see how it goes, but I am encouraging all children to be vaccinated. And I am also encouraging children to ask for the vaccine,” Walensky said. “I have a 16-year-old and I continue he wanted to get the vaccine. He wants his life back.”

The CDC has faced criticism in recent weeks for its murky messaging around the pandemic — a point Republican Sen. Susan Collins hit on, saying she “used to have the utmost respect for the guidance from the CDC.”

“I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don’t anymore,” Collins said, going onto to tick through what she called “conflicting, confusing guidance” from the CDC that contradicts health officials, like requiring vaccinated persons to wear masks in crowded spaces indoors even with other vaccinated persons.

“So, here we have unnecessary barriers to reopening schools, exaggerating the risks of outdoor transmission, and unworkable restrictions on summer camps. Why does this matter?” Collins continued. “It matters because it undermines public confidence in your recommendation, in the recommendations that do make sense, in the recommendations that Americans should be following.”

Walensky stood firmly behind CDC guidance that she said is developed with “stakeholders and consumers” before being finalized, defended school recommendations by pointing to immunocompromised populations and got personal when responding to criticism about whether kids at summer camps need to wear masks.

“I want our kids back in camp,” she said, talking about how her 16-year-old son counts down the days to his summer camp each year. “We now have 38,000 new infections, on average, per day. Last May 11th, it was 24,000. And we sent a lot of kids home and camps were closed. The camp guidance is intended to get our kids to camp and allow them to stay there.”

Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy joined Collins in expressing frustration with the CDC and told the panel the American people “are beginning to disregard what you say is true.”

“The American people just lost patience with us, with you guys. I would ask you to be aware of their frustrations and get a little real time into updating these things. I am sorry to be so frustrated,” Cassidy said to close.

Earlier, when it was Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s turn, it didn’t take long for him to drill Fauci over his handling of the pandemic in a heated line of questioning on the origin of the virus.

Paul, pushing the unverified claim that the virus originated in the Wuhan Virology Institute, pressed Fauci on whether the National Institutes of Health funded the lab — which Fauci shot down as unequivocally false.

“Do still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?” Paul asked.

“With all due respect, you are entirely incorrect that the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain of function research in that institute,” Fauci said. “I fully agree you should investigate where the virus came from, but again, we have not funded gain of function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

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