Alexander praises Tennessee's COVID-19 testing numbers

Robert Houk • May 12, 2020 at 6:32 PM

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told his colleagues on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that national testing for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been “impressive” enough for many Americans to return to work.

“But millions more rapid tests created by new technologies are needed to give the rest of America enough confidence to go back to work and back to school,” said Alexander, who presided electronically over the committee’s pandemic hearings on Tuesday while being self-quarantined in Tennessee after a member of his own staff tested positive for the virus.

The chairman made his remarks before the Senate’s health panel heard remote testimony from officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health regarding what federal, state and local governments can do to help Americans return to the classrooms and to their jobs in a safe manner. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Donald Trump’s lead adviser on infectious diseases, said the nation’s COVID-19 death toll is likely to be much higher if the number of cases spike when people return to work. He also said the virus could see a resurgence in the fall.

Fauci told senators that relaxing social distancing and quarantine restrictions too soon for the sake of the economy could be devastating.

“The consequences could be really serious,” he said during his electronic testimony.

Alexander said Johns Hopkins University has determined the United States has tested over 9 million Americans for COVID-19, which is twice as many as any other nation.

“Here is what ‘impressive’ means in Tennessee,” Alexander told the committee. “First, anyone who is sick, or a first responder or a health care worker can get tested. Gov. Bill Lee is also testing every prisoner, every resident and staff member of a nursing home, offered weekend drive-through testing and has done specific outreach to increase testing in low-income neighborhoods.”

He told senators Tennessee — which is among the first states in the nation to reopen businesses — has tested 4% of its population. Alexander said the governor hopes to increase that to 7% by the end of May.

“That impressive level of testing is sufficient to begin Phase I of going back to work in Tennessee, but as I said last week, it is not nearly enough to provide confidence to 31,000 students and faculty that it is safe to return to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus in August.”

Alexander said he believes Congress should “put into law this year whatever improvements we need to be well prepared” for the next pandemic.

“Staying at home indefinitely is not the way to end this pandemic,” the senator said. “There is not enough money available to help all those hurt by a closed economy. All roads back to work and back to school lead through testing, tracking, isolation, treatment and vaccines.”

Meanwhile, Fauci told committee members that school systems must exercise extreme caution in reopening schools. He noted that deadly inflammatory symptoms associated with the virus have been diagnosed in children.

Fauci told senators to “not be cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects” of the coronavirus.

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