WASHINGTON (CN) — While the world awaits a vaccine for Covid-19 and the U.S. struggles to tamp down the spread in its borders, the senior-most public health officials of the Trump administration emphasized repeatedly to Congress on Friday that mask wearing, social distancing and proper hygiene are the keys to escaping the crisis faster.
There are more than 150,000 Americans dead of the novel coronavirus and the infection rate has soared to astounding heights in the few short months since Covid-19 jumped from zero cases domestically to 4 million and counting.
While the Trump administration released guidance for states to handle the virus at its outset in April, those recommendations were formulated to put states in the driver’s seat, leaving significant wiggle room for uncooperative officials and ultimately only outlining outbreak protocols that covered 15- and 30-day intervals.
This lack of a sweeping, uniform national strategy six months into the pandemic by the federal government prompted the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis to consult on Friday with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health for the Health and Human Services Department.
Presenting a graph showing a sharp rise in case rates in the U.S. while Europe infections plummeted, committee Chairman Jim Clyburn asked Fauci to explain just what went wrong.
“If you look at what happened to Europe when they went into shutdown or lockdown mode, they did it to the tune of 95%,” Fauci said. “In the U.S., even though we shut down, we only functionally shut down about 50%, in the sense of the totality of the country.”
Our initial transmission baseline was hard to beat, he continued, and those difficulties only continued when more states started to reopen in May.
“When we did that, what we saw, particularly in the southern states, we saw an increase of about 20,000 to 70,000 cases per day over time in that region,” Fauci said. “Now it is about 50,000 to 60,000.”
Universal mask wearing, elimination of crowding, enforcement of stricter social distancing — none of these standards were rolled out soon enough, he added.
The exchange unfolding in Congress prompted President Donald Trump to tweet at Representative Clyburn that the South Carolina Democrat didn’t “have a clue” on infection rates.
Making an inherently flawed comparison, Trump blamed America’s high infection numbers to “much more testing than any other country in the world.” The analogy is akin to saying that more pregnancy tests lead to more pregnancies.
Various members of Trump’s coronavirus task force and health agencies, including Fauci and CDC Director Redfield, have publicly disputed Trump’s rhetoric against testing. The rise in cases is authentic because it is shows not just increased numbers of tests distributed generally but increased positive diagnoses as well.
Fauci again confirmed this.
Republicans like Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who serves as the committee’s ranking member, defended the administration’s handling of the pandemic and urged Democrats to focus on the role China has played.
Covid-19 originated at a wet market in Wuhan, China, after the virus was transmitted from an animal to a human. Trump, despite praising China’s President Xi Jinping dozens of times when the pandemic first began spreading, now insists on referring to the disease as the “China virus” whether on Twitter or even more official pronouncements, such as the newly reinstated nightly White House briefings.
Democrats like Representative Maxine Waters and Jamie Raskin said these outbursts are precisely the kind of “politicization” of the virus, and the federal response to it, that deeply troubles them.
“Blaming other countries is not a plan,” said Raskin. “Blaming China is not a plan. Blaming China is not even a good excuse for the incompetence and disinformation of President Trump. China’s early cover up only deepens the complicity of Trump.”
The Maryland congressman said as he noted at least 37 occasions where Trump defended or praised Jinping as the world fell ill.
Representative Waters invoked the death of former presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who co-chaired a group called Black Voices for Trump. Cain died within weeks of attending Trump’s June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which led to an outbreak.
“This virus is not Democrat or Republican … He’s dead. He died. I’m told he was in good health. But he contracted the virus as a result of his attendance with no mask,” said Waters.
While it is true the virus does not discriminate politically, it has proven particularly fatal in Black communities. Waters, a representative of California, is also Black.
Democrats emphasized that their goal is not to cast aspersions on the Trump administration simply for the sake of it. The goal is to “stop the unnecessary deaths” of more Americans and tap whatever resources necessary to do so, Clyburn said.
If containment efforts are not improved, he noted that another 150,000 deaths before the end of the year is well within the realm of possibilities — a threat made only more tangible in light of the looming school year.
If children become vectors for the disease, its spread to more vulnerable teachers and support staff would be swift.
Both the president and several Republicans in the House and Senate have suggested without evidence that children show some immunity to the virus.
No less than three times Friday, Dr. Fauci said that simply wasn’t the case.
“If you’re talking about a conclusion that children are in general immune? They get infected. Therefore they are not immune,” he said. “When you look at the deleterious effects, they generally do much better. You look at the hospitalizations, there’s a much lower rate and the curve goes up as patients get older.”
Fauci also worked to dispel another plank of the president’s response to the virus: the use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment or therapeutic.
Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer, a Missouri Republican, highlighted a study by the Henry Ford Health System that claimed the drug reduced death rates and that, when zinc was not used in conjunction with the drug, it was not as efficacious.
“The Henry Ford hospital study that was published was a non-controlled cohort study that was confounded by a number of issues, including the fact that many of the people receiving hydroxychloroquine were also receiving corticosteroids, which we know from another study gives a clear benefit in reducing deaths with advanced disease,” Fauci said. “So that study is a flawed study and I think anyone who examines it carefully, see that it is not a randomized placebo controlled study.”
This type is the “gold-standard,” Fauci added.
Luetkemeyer, who for a time sat in the committee room with a mask covering just his mouth while CDC Director Redfield actively urged Americans to properly wear masks indoors or when around groups, noted that the Ford study was “peer reviewed.”
“It doesn’t matter. You can peer-review something that’s a bad study, but the fact is it is not a randomized placebo-controlled trial,” Fauci said.
If the tests bore positive results, the NIAID director said he would be the first to promote it.
Fauci confirmed that vaccines are still expected to be available by the end of this year or early 2021, and that 30,000 people are enrolled at present in the first phase 3 clinical trial for a vaccine in the U.S. The trial, launched by Moderna, started this week.
While calls to depoliticize the pandemic dominated much discussion on committee, President Trump took to twitter again after it concluded, this time praising Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and staunch White House ally.
Jordan repeatedly claimed that protests across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s police killing were responsible for the rise in infections. A June study by the National Bureau of Economic Research sampling 315 of the largest mass protests found the opposite: The protests did not result in broad negative public health consequences.
When Jordan repeatedly pressed Fauci to answer whether the protests were responsible for more outbreaks, Fauci held fast.
“I don’t know how any times I can answer that. I’m not going to opine on anything,” Fauci said, against Jordan’s crosstalk, as he tried to tell the lawmaker that, regardless of the reason a person finds themselves in a crowd, they must be masked to reduce transmission.