WASHINGTON (CN) — Eighty thousand Americans have died from Covid-19 in just over 70 days, but things will only get worse, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday in remarks to the Senate, if the country rushes its return to normalcy.
“There is no doubt that even under the best circumstances, when you pull back on mitigation, you will see some cases appear,” said Fauci, one of four top medical experts who will testify at the hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
“It’s the ability and capability to respond to those cases with good identification and isolation techniques,” Fauci continued. “That determines whether you continue to go forward in trying to reopen America. It is not just about having the appropriate time and constraints in place but having the pieces in place to respond when inevitable infections occur.
Having led the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease since 1984, Fauci emerged this year as perhaps the most trusted faces in the White House task force on the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways not much has changed since Fauci last appeared before Congress — but the differences are stark.
For one, Fauci appeared before the House, a Democratic-controlled chamber where he is now barred from speaking on instruction from the White House.
Fauci had also been in person when he delivered his early warnings, whereas on Tuesday he addressed senators gathered in the Dirksen building via remote videoconferencing.
Representative Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the committee, noted that the set-up was a onetime exception. Fauci has been self-quarantining out of an abundance of caution after a small outbreak of the virus struck multiple members of White House staff.
The others testifying today — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Stephen Hahn, and Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services — are getting similar accommodations.
From their first witness today the Senate heard a message both hopeful and grim, as Fauci testified that a vaccine is not within reach but still the best way toward putting students back in school, and bring back jobs.
“I’d be very realistic, in this case, the idea that having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci said.
Fauci previewed some of today’s testimony in an email sent the previous evening to The New York Times. “If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to: ‘Open America Again,’ then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country,” he wrote. “This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”
Discussing what he called the “modest success” of the drug remdesivir when it comes to speeding up recovery times for ailing patients, Fauci noted that it boosted recovery time by 31% in a recent trial. He also pointed out, however, that the drug is not yet ready to be considered a definitively viable treatment pathway.
“It is not yet or may ever be ready to be used as prophylaxis or for treatment,” Fauci said Tuesday.
There are eight additional vaccine candidates in clinical trial, soon to face animal testing leading into phase 2 development this summer.
“If we had a vaccine, that would be the end of the issue but even at the top speed we are going, we don’t see a vaccine playing into individuals’ ability to get back to school this term,” Fauci said.
People nervous about returning to school or work might take comfort, Fauci noted, in some of the quasi-treatment protocols already available, including one process where plasma is transferred from convalescent patients to the newly diagnosed.
Admiral Giroir, who has spearheaded the testing initiative by the White House, said it would be hard to predict precisely what the national testing strategy will look like this fall.
“Ideally, we would have the ability for all schools to test,” Giroir said.
He told lawmakers he hopes by that point, 25 million point of care tests will be available to administer each month. The CDC is expected to work in conjunction with local health departments to expand testing for schools.
Both Giroir and Fauci acknowledged that a second crushing round of outbreaks is possible this fall, but Fauci encouraged senators to make the connection: The prospective damage later this year can absolutely be eased if the U.S. accelerates testing capacity now and stocks up on personal protective equipment, especially for essential workers.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who was the first member of the chamber to test positive for Covid-19, was intent on challenging Fauci Tuesday and at one point questioned the longtime infectious disease expert’s authority on matters like immunity. Paul also suggested Fauci did not have the chops to weigh in on economic matters related to reopening.
“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 a decision [to reopen],” Paul said. “We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side saying there is not going to be a surge and that we can safely open the economy, and the facts will bear this out.”
Fauci, well known for his clarity and succinct delivery, met the challenge head-on.
“I’ve never made myself out to be the end-all. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence. There are a number of other people that come into this and give advice about the need to reopen the country or the economy,” Fauci said. “I don’t give advice about the economy. I give advice about public health.”
In a moment of considerable irony, Senator Paul also beseeched the public to “be humble” about what is still unknown around the virus.
Fauci agreed with the sentiment.
“You said we should be humble about what we don’t know. We don’t know everything about this virus, and we better be careful, especially with children,” he said.
Dozens of children in the U.S. who contracted Covid-19 have begun in recent weeks to have come down with a new ailment, believed to be related to the inflammatory condition Kawasaki disease.
“We better not be cavalier thinking children are immune to the deleterious effects,” Fauci said. “Yes, children do better than, particularly, the elderly or those with underlying conditions, but I am very careful and hopeful that I don’t know everything about this disease. That is why I am reserved about making broad predictions.”
Redfield at the CDC dodged questions Tuesday on why the Trump administration shelved testing and reopening guidance it received from the CDC weeks ago. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy needled Redfield about when states could expect to see the guidance. Connecticut is scheduled to lift its social-distancing restrictions in less than two weeks.
“Why didn’t the plan get released? When will it be released? States are reopening now,” the Democratic Murphy urged. “We need this additional guidance.”
Redfield would only commit to saying that the guidance was “under review” and that he stood by the recommendations it has already issued to states in recent weeks.
Republicans too appeared alarmed at the uncertain future lying ahead.
Senator Pat Roberts pressed Giroir, the testing czar, about how he reconciled President Trump’s push to keep meatpacking plants open and the simultaneous expectation that workers can stay healthy.
Giroir pointed to the development of rapid testing at facilities in Kansas, noting that results can be given to workers in just an hour.
“If it takes an hour to get a test, I don’t know that is rapid,” the Republican retorted.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was eager to get answers from the panel about how geographically diverse states or states with large rural populations may fare in the months ahead. The federal government has issued just 50,000 tests to the state already but plans for contact tracing there — and nationally — remain more amorphous than not.
“I am not convinced we’re focusing enough on how to move to reopening if we haven’t done contact tracing,” she lamented.
The CDC has dispatched small teams to coordinate with each state on contact-tracing plans generally, but it is likely that these blueprints will be need to be augmented. Redfield said they must be developed and rolled out no later than September.
During a small scrum with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine said part of his main concern with reopening the country involves the lack of adequate testing for Americans. The Democrat blamed stalling from the administration on a national tracing program as having aided the virus to spread undetected.
“When you need about 900,000 tests a day — and that’s what the experts say — but you’re only up to 395,000, that means an awful lot of spread is out there in communities that we’re not detecting,” Kaine said. “The answer is not the same for every community or every state but as a nation we’re still far beneath what we need to be.”
As for the president’s rhetoric that the United States had risen to its testing challenge, Kaine said it would be impossible to convince Americans the country had cleared the hurdle.
“You cannot look one American in the face, or one Virginian in the face and say that the United States, with one of the highest death rates in the world, has prevailed,” Kaine said. “Why would the United States tolerate a death rate 45 times the death rate in South Korea? Three times the death rate in Germany— … We haven’t prevailed. We need to, but we’ll only prevail if we have better management at the helm.”
Courthouse News reporter Jack Rodgers contributed reporting