Fauci: Earlier social distancing measures 'obviously' would have saved more lives


Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said Sunday that earlier efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. "obviously" could have saved lives but top health officials faced "a lot of pushback about shutting things down."

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was responding on CNN's "State of the Union" to a New York Times report stating that President Donald Trump's top public health officials concluded by the third week of February that they should recommend to the president a new approach to COVID-19, which included social distancing steps. But, according to The Times, the White House "focused instead on messaging and crucial additional weeks went by before their views were reluctantly accepted by the president — time when the virus spread largely unimpeded."

"We look at it from a pure health standpoint," Fauci told CNN. "We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it's not. But ... it is what it is. We are where we are right now."

"Again, it's the 'what would have, what could have'," Fauci added when asked if lives could've been spared had social distancing been implemented weeks earlier. "It's very difficult to go back and say that. I mean, obviously, you could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated."

Fauci continued that "obviously," if things were shut down "right from the very beginning, it may have been a little bit different."

"But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then," Fauci said.

White House spokesman Judd Deere on Sunday pushed back on The Times' report by saying that in January and February, Trump "took bold action to protect Americans and unleash the full power of the federal government to curb the spread of the virus, expand testing capacities, and expedite vaccine development when we had no true idea the level of transmission or asymptomatic spread."

"The President remains completely focused on the health and safety of the American people and it is because of his bold leadership that we will emerge from this challenge healthy, stronger, and with a prosperous and growing economy," Deere continued.

As of Saturday, the U.S. surpassed Italy as the country with the highest number of coronavirus deaths, with more than 20,000 recorded according to NBC News figures. The death toll worldwide is more than 107,000 with more than 1.7 million cases confirmed, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Asked when Americans can expect the country to begin reopening, Fauci said the critical issue will be whether states and localities will be able to "identify, isolate and contact-trace" news cases in real-time. Re-opening parts of the country and economy will happen on a "rolling" basis, he added.

"It is not going to be a light switch that we say, OK, it is now June, July or whatever, click, the light switch goes back on," Fauci said. "It's going to be depending where you are in the country, the nature of the outbreak that you have already experienced, and the threat of an outbreak that you may not have experienced."

"I think it's going to have to be something that is not one size fits all," he added, saying the process could begin next month.

"We are hoping that, at the end of the month, we could look around and say, OK, is there any element here that we can safely and cautiously start pulling back on?" he continued. "If so, do it. If not, then just continue to hunker down. And that's what, at least for me standpoint of the public health aspect, that we look at."

Asked if voters will be safe to vote as normal in November, Fauci said he hopes that will be the case but he "can't guarantee it."

"I believe that, if we have a good, measured way of rolling into this, steps towards normality, that we hope, by the time we get to November, that we will be able to do it in a way which is the standard way," Fauci said. "However — and I don't want to be the pessimistic person — there is always the possibility, as we get into next fall, and the beginning of early winter, that we could see a rebound."

"And, hopefully, what we have gone through now, and the capability that we have for much, much better testing capability, much, much better sera surveillance capability, and the ability to respond with countermeasures, with drugs that work, that it will be an entirely different ball game," he continued.

Originally published