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Romney, other senators told COVID-19 vaccine will be free to all Americans

Senators grill Dr. Anthony Fauci and other members of White House coronavirus task force about progress, safety and cost of vaccine.

A screenshot of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney asking questions during a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing about the government’s coronavirus response on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020.
Jeff Parrott, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On Wednesday, members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions received an update on the federal pandemic response from the nation’s top public health officials.

The senators — to include Utah Republican Mitt Romney — heard from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Admiral Dr. Brett Giroir, the Department of Health and Human Services’ assistant secretary for health.

CDC director says pandemic is getting better, but it’s not over

Redfield explained in his opening statement that daily case totals have been cut nearly in half since the pandemic’s peak and there has been a “significant improvement in mortality, particular in the elderly.” But he offered a warning that the pandemic wasn’t over and encouraged young Americans to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

  • “The 18-to-25-year-olds currently make up over 26% of new infections and more than any other group.”
  • “It’s imperative that these young adults recognize that, even though they’re unlikely to get seriously ill from this virus, they are major contributors to the spread of COVID-19 in our country.”
  • “The CDC encourages all Americans to embrace the powerful public health tools we have right now: wear a mask, maintain social distance, practice routine hand washing with vigilance, be smart about crowds and stay home when you’re feeling sick.”

Redfield added that all Americans should “embrace the flu vaccine” and that the CDC has purchased millions of additional flu vaccine dosages for this season.

Doctors say vaccine will be safe

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., asked Fauci, Giroir and Redfield, if — as a demonstration of their confidence in a vaccine — they would “commit to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in public view” once it was approved and available from the FDA.

Each said they would take the vaccine and recommend it to their families. Giroir added that people need to understand the vaccine and “have a discussion with their physicians or providers.”

The FDA’s Hahn said earlier in the hearing that “absolutely yes” he would take the vaccine and encourage his family to do the same.

Romney inquires about vaccine timeline

Romney asked Hahn when the administration could expect to receive its first application of a coronavirus vaccine.

Hahn said he couldn’t comment on “confidential commercial information,” but clinical trials were going “as expected” and one trial had exceeded expectations.

Romney, like other senators, was able to remain socially distanced and attend the hearing remotely from his Senate office.

The commissioner said the approval process typically takes the FDA “weeks, sometimes months,” but wouldn’t commit to how long it wold take to approve a coronavirus vaccine without first seeing trial data.

“What I can tell you, sir, is we do feel the urgency of the moment. We do take very seriously our responsibility to protect American lives,” Hahn told Romney. “We will not delay, but we will not cut corners in our process.”

The Utah senator then asked Fauci about production and the availability of vaccine once a one was approved.

If the FDA approved a vaccine on Nov. 1, Romney asked, “what proportion of the our population would be able to be vaccinated, let’s say, by the end of the year?”

Fauci said there may be 50 million doses available in the first month.

“By December, maybe another a hundred plus million. And then when you get into January, February, by the time you get to April, there’ll be a total of about 700 million.

Fauci said those numbers were the totality of all companies producing a vaccine, once a vaccine was approved.

The vaccine will be free to Americans, Fauci said

At the closing of the hearing, HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., asked a series of rapid-fire questions about a potential vaccine to Fauci.

  • Will the vaccine shot give the person being vaccinated COVID-19?

“Absolutely not. That would be impossible,” said Fauci. “That risk does not exist.”

  • Will people need to get an annual coronavirus vaccine, like the flu, or will the vaccine being one, long-term-acting series like the polo vaccine?

“We do not know that yet, Mr. Chairman,” Fauci responded. “What we do not know yet, is how effective the COVID-19 vaccine will be, nor do we know the durability of the protection — how long it will last. We will find out the answers to those questions through the clinical trials and the follow-up to the clinical trials.

  • Will the vaccine be free to Americans?

“We have been been assured that, in fact, the American public will not have to pay for the vaccine,” Fauci said. He did not say who told the administration’s coronavirus task force that Americans would not be charged for the vaccine.

  • How many will shots will a person need to become vaccinated?

Fauci explained that different vaccines were being developed by different companies. Some vaccines being tested will require one shot, while others involve a “prime” and a “boost.”

The vaccine being tested with a booster shot would require the booster to be administered three or four weeks after the prime.