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WASHINGTON — The Republican chair of a Senate committee held a hearing Tuesday that featured witnesses who pushed unproven COVID-19 cures and questioned widely accepted measures like wearing masks and social distancing. Democrats and even several Republicans stayed away.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chair Sen. Ron Johnson said the hearing was designed to explore unconventional approaches to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. “The root cause of our problems is just closed minds,” he said. But Democrats boycotted the meeting, saying Johnson was irresponsibly promoting fringe viewpoints and unproven theories that could be harmful.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney also denounced the hearing. “I think it's nuts to bring that into the Senate,” he said about one witness, Jane Orient, a vocal critic of vaccinations.
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The committee hearing repeatedly ranged into unfounded theories and scientifically dubious territory, such as when Orient speculated that COVID was largely being transmitted by fecal matter being spread through the air after toilet flushings.
“Maybe instead of putting masks on everybody, we should be putting lids on the toilet or pouring Clorox into it before you flush it,” she said.
The CDC currently states that, while the coronavirus has been detected in feces, there has yet to be a confirmed report of the virus spreading from person to person this way.
Another witness, Sibley Memorial Hospital cardiologist Ramin Oskoui, told the committee that common safety measures like wearing masks, social distancing, and quarantining do not work. This stance flies in the face of scientific consensus and the recommendations of the CDC, which is urging universal mask-wearing, social distancing, and quarantining when a person may have been exposed to COVID.
Witnesses also praised unproven treatments like hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug promoted by President Donald Trump, and ivermectin, a drug used to fight parasitic worms, as game-changing solutions to stop the spread of COVID. Neither drug has been approved as a COVID treatment by federal experts. The Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine after it was shown to be ineffective as a COVID-19 treatment and could cause serious side effects.
During a previous hearing on hydroxychloroquine, Democrats called Brown University school of public health dean Ashish Jha as a witness. Jha reported being harassed online after he testified that the drug was a medical dead end, with no evidence supporting the claim that it helps COVID patients. This time, Democrats did not take part in rounds of questioning or call any witnesses.
“The panelists have been selected for their political, not their medical views. And for that reason the composition of the panel creates a false and terribly harmful impression of the scientific and medical consensus,” said ranking Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, in his opening statement before leaving the hearing.
Aside from Johnson, only two other Republican members took part — Sens. Rand Paul and Josh Hawley. It’s not clear whether the others did not want to be associated with the hearing or simply had conflicting commitments. Sen. Rob Portman’s office told BuzzFeed News he is spending every free moment he has working on a COVID relief bill. Sen. James Lankford said he was present at the beginning of the hearing, though he did not ask any questions.
Johnson has increasingly used his committee gavel in ways that have baffled and exasperated his Democratic colleagues. He spent much of the year investigating the overseas business dealings of Hunter Biden, son of President-elect Joe Biden. He continues to reject that Trump lost the presidential election, despite the states certifying the results that Biden won a 306 to 232 Electoral College victory, and Trump’s various legal filings failing to prove a single case of voter fraud.
After Tuesday’s hearing, Johnson insisted his committee was helping uncover new scientific solutions. “I thought it was an excellent hearing,” he said. “It just blows me away why people are so close-minded.”