Top federal health officials on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s efforts to protect Americans against the highly contagious Omicron variant as they faced withering accusations from lawmakers about scarce coronavirus tests and confusing guidance on how people who tested positive for the virus could return to normal life.
Joined by the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, called the wave of Omicron cases a “massive, unprecedented surge.”
“This is an extraordinary virus, the likes of which we have not seen even close to in well over 100 years. It is a very wily virus,” one that has “fooled everybody all the time, from the time it first came in, to Delta, to now Omicron,” he said.
“We’re doing the best we possibly can,” he added.
Lawmakers at the hearing said the government failed to grasp the nation’s need for virus tests, would only be able to fulfill its promise to supply a half billion of them after the current surge had peaked, and had mangled critical public health messaging.
The nearly four-hour hearing took place at a critical inflection point in the nation’s fight against the pandemic. The coupling of the Delta variant with Omicron has driven an extraordinary climb in cases. More than 735,000 infections are being reported in the United States each day, according to a New York Times database. Modeling scenarios cited in an internal government document obtained by The Times, dated Jan. 5, point to more than a million daily confirmed infections by the end of this month.
That number is widely viewed as a vast undercount because of the scarcity of tests and widespread failure of people to report positive results from at-home tests to government authorities. Although the true number of infections is unknown, Biden administration officials acknowledge that the nation will be awash in positive tests for the virus, even if symptoms are often mild.
“It’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is, most people are going to get Covid,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said, offering one of the most pointed acknowledgments of any federal official since Omicron hit. She added: “What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens.”
Federal and state health officials have been particularly worried that hospitals could be overrun, especially with many staffers out sick and intensive care units still crowded, including from an earlier wave of Delta cases. On average over the last seven days, more than 135,000 people were hospitalized with the virus, an 83 percent increase from two weeks ago.
The nation this week saw a single-day record for the number of hospitalized patients with the virus. The hospitalization totals include people who test positive for the virus incidentally after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid-19, but there is no national data showing how many people are in that category. Senior administration officials said in interviews Monday that infections and hospitalizations are expected to peak by the end of January, then plummet sharply.
Asked on Tuesday whether he was worried about the nation’s fight against the virus, Mr. Biden said that he was “concerned about the pandemic, just because worldwide it’s not slowing up very much.” He added that federal officials were working to help states and hospitals. “I’m confident we are on the right track,” he told reporters before he left to give a speech in Atlanta.
At the hearing, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s top Democrat, praised the administration’s efforts to supply vaccines and treatments to Americans, but said health workers are still spread thinly two years in, and schools are “worried they’ll have to shut down again if they can’t get the support for testing they need.”
Senator Richard Burr, the top Republican on the panel, said the Biden administration had spent months issuing confusing, contradictory recommendations. He cited zigzagging guidance on booster shots, and noted that this month Dr. Fauci had publicly contradicted Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, in suggesting the agency’s guidance on isolation for those who had tested positive would be revised to include a testing recommendation.
“Most Americans can’t make heads or tails of anything coming out of this administration,” Senator Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, said. “At times it doesn’t seem like anyone’s in charge.”
Mr. Burr was also harshly critical of the administration’s promise to deliver 500 million rapid tests to the homes of Americans, saying that Mr. Biden had pledged to do so without having the tests in hand.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said the scarcity of tests “appears to have been entirely preventable,” and that the administration failed to anticipate the need even though Congress allocated billions of dollars for testing efforts.
Dawn O’Connell, the administration’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said that when federal health officials saw Omicron sweeping across South Africa and Europe, “we immediately reached out to our manufacturers to understand any supply constraints they had and to evaluate their surge capacity.”
“We have also met daily with them to make sure that they have what they need from their suppliers,” she said, adding that the Defense Production Act had been used in recent weeks to help free up supplies and manufacturing capacity.
She said the administration in the fall had also invested $3 billion to support manufacturing rapid tests, but acknowledged that “that’s not enough.”
She said that while some of the half-billion tests the government has bought would be sent to Americans by the end of January, it would take two months to distribute the rest. By then, as one senator noted, the Omicron surge will likely have long peaked.
Just 50 million of the 500 million promised tests have been purchased so far, Ms. O’Connell said, though more agreements will be announced in the coming days.
Adeel Hassan and Albert Sun contributed reporting.