By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) — For once – at least for a moment – some US Senators sounded just like normal people during Tuesday’s COVID-19 hearing of the Senate Health Committee.

“What does it mean to be exposed?” asked Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “We’re in a room right now and I’m sure someone has Omicron.”

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Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky made it clear you need to have been exposed to a positive case for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. But that couldn’t make up for the flow of hard-to-follow guidelines coming out of the CDC recently as they struggle to adapt to fast-changing scientific research amid a political climate supercharged with anxiety and disinformation.

“We found it confusing,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), who suggested that “not too many people are listening.”

The messengers vowed to do better. But a key challenge they face was also on display here – the exploitation of the battle against COVID-19 by political opportunists.

When it was Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s turn, he ignored issues of public health to rip into Dr. Anthony Fauci, the President’s chief medical adviser, who has become a target of conspiracy theorists and a broad swath of the right-wing. “A planner that believes he is ‘the science’ leads to an arrogance that justifies in his mind to use government resources to smear and destroy the reputation of other scientists who disagree with him,” said Paul as he unspooled an accusation that Fauci had conspired with other top public health officials to discredit critics of their approach.

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When Fauci tried to rebut – “as usual you’re distorting everything” – Paul filibustered, at one point insisting that “more people have died under Biden than Trump,” a spurious claim currently popular on the right. That prompted Fauci to display a Paul fundraising brochure that features and attacks Fauci. “He’s doing this for political reasons,” said the doctor.

No doubt about it, the Democrats made an issue of the Republicans’ COVID-19 response in the heat of the 2020 campaign. But the demonization of Fauci has helped undercut the push for vaccination and other precautions among many of the very folks who need to hear it most.

“Some of what we do is performing, and some of what we do is informing,” noted Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) after the Paul/Fauci dust had settled. And as Romney noted, there’s a public health price to be paid for it.

“That comes at a high cost that may I fear mess with the choices people make.”

A majority of Americans still approve of Fauci’s work, but it’s a slim one: 52% in a recent Gallup poll. And with the ranks of the unvaccinated overwhelmingly populated by Republicans, it’s a fair question whether or not he can still be an effective advocate for vaccination.

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But this hearing and the ongoing vilification of Fauci and other key aspects of the governmental response to COVID-19 have outlived the Trump era to the point where you have to wonder – if vaccination and compliance with other anti-virus measures are the keys to escaping this nightmare, will it really ever end?

Jon Keller