WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the coronavirus task force, cautioned in congressional testimony that a rushed lifting of coronavirus lockdowns could lead the virus to return with redoubled force.
“There is no doubt, even under the best of circumstances, that when you pull back on mitigation, you will see some cases,” Fauci said in a congressional hearing on Tuesday meant to address when schools and businesses could begin to emerge from closures that have affected some 90 percent of all Americans.
He added that, most likely, the official count of 81,000 fatalities from the coronavirus was missing some deaths from the disease. “Most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than that number,” Fauci said, a statement that contradicts a view proffered by some commentators and hosts on Fox News, who claim the government is exaggerating the scope of the pandemic.
Fauci is the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. With his long history of public health efforts, media savvy and willingness to speak blunt truths, Fauci has become one of the nation’s most trusted figures when it comes to the pandemic. His prominence and trustworthiness are bound to make his words of caution carry significant weight with the American public.
Speaking at another point during the hearing, Fauci said he was concerned that reopening too early could lead to “little spikes that might turn into outbreaks.”
Tuesday’s hearing was held before the Senate Health Committee and titled “Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.” The committee is chaired by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican who has exercised a measure of independence from President Trump.
In his opening remarks, Alexander said that the nation’s coronavirus testing capacity was “impressive but not nearly enough” to see the nation return to normal. That sentiment was echoed sometime later by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Rapid, extensive and widely available, timely testing is essential to reopening America,” Redfield told the committee.
Many of the senators attended via video link as well. Among those present in the hearing room — reconfigured to meet social distancing requirements and equipped with ample hand sanitizer — face masks appeared to be a largely partisan matter. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine appeared to be the only Republican to wear a face mask.
More than 9 million Americans have been tested for the coronavirus, but that number will have to increase dramatically, according to public health experts. A recent Harvard study called for 20 million tests per day in order for the nation to emerge safely from the pandemic, which has killed 81,000 people in the United States.
Testifying alongside Fauci and Redfield on Tuesday were Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Adm. Brett Giroir of the Health and Human Services Department, who has been placed in charge of coronavirus testing by the White House. All four testified remotely, as they had come into contact with one of the infected White House staffers and were taking precautionary measures as a result.
Led by Georgia, Texas and Florida, many states have begun to reopen, even as others remain under relatively strict stay-at-home measures. Impatient to see the economy rescued from a looming recession, Trump has called for such measures to be lifted. And though hundreds of Americans continue to die each day from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, Trump has claimed victory over the pandemic.
“We have met the moment, and we have prevailed,” the president said in a Rose Garden press conference on Monday, which was held just as the White House was implementing stricter safety measures in response to two staffers having become infected with the coronavirus.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., highlighted that disparity in his remarks. “This is infuriating to many of us,” he said of the experts’ warnings about reopening, and how those warnings clashed with the president’s own assertions. The president’s avowal that victory was at hand, he said, would “make it much harder on state leaders to keep social distancing restrictions in place.” He said the federal government was not giving the states the “resources to succeed” in battling the pandemic, an apparent reference to shortages in testing equipment.
The day before, Trump announced a commitment of $11 billion to bolster testing across the United States, even as he also argued that no testing shortfalls existed. Speaking on Tuesday, Alexander made clear that coronavirus testing would have to be the linchpin of a national strategy to lift lockdown measures safely.
“All roads back to work and school go through testing,” he said, downplaying expectations that vaccines and treatments would arrive shortly. Fauci made much the same point, calling expectations of a biomedical solution by summer’s end “a bridge too far.”
(Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont pushed for Hahn and Giroir to say that when a vaccine did become available, it would be affordable to all Americans; neither official could promise affordability, but Hahn did say he would raise the matter with the White House directly.)
Challenge to Fauci came from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who tested positive for the coronavirus in March. A doctor himself, Paul appeared to be taking issue with Fauci’s insistence on continued stay-at-home measures.
“I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what’s best for the economy,” Paul said testily. “As much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person who gets to make the decision.”
Having weathered decades of political storms, Fauci appeared unperturbed. “I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice in this,” he answered. “I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official.”
Paul was not the only legislator to show his irritation with the current state of affairs. Republicans like he may be dissatisfied with the persistence of lockdown measures, but Democrats have plenty of complaints of their own.
Murphy of Connecticut, for instance, charged that reopening guidelines were “criminally vague.” States are supposed to see 14 days of declining coronavirus cases before reopening, but many have reopened without meeting that benchmark. Specific benchmarks for testing were not spelled out in the White House reopening guidance.
Murphy wanted to know about recent reports that the White House prevented the CDC from publishing a detailed guidance on reopening. Redfield, the CDC director, answered that the guidance would “soon” be posted on its website.
“Soon,” Murphy shot back, “isn’t terribly helpful.”
Additional reporting by Dylan Stableford.
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