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The country’s leading health officials told lawmakers on Tuesday that the U.S. has seen notable improvements in COVID-19 infection rates. However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urged government leaders not to rush to reopen the country.
“I think we’re going in the right direction. But, the right direction does not mean we have, by any means, total control of this outbreak,” Fauci said.
Fauci appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to discuss safely reopening schools and workplaces amid the pandemic as states move to ease their shutdown restrictions. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention; Commissioner Stephen Hahn of the Food and Drug Administration; and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Health, Adm. Brett Giroir, also spoke before the committee.
Tuesday’s hearing follows the White House’s decision to block Fauci from testifying in April before a House panel investigating the administration’s pandemic response.
In the months since the virus has swept across the United States, President Donald Trump’s administration has come under fire over its response to the public health crisis amid news reports that health officials warned the president about the pandemic weeks before he took action. States have also called on the federal government to provide more funding, virus testing and personal protective equipment for essential workers.
Despite more than 1 million confirmed infections and nearly 80,000 deaths across the country, Trump declared on Monday that the U.S. has “prevailed” in virus testing. But in his Tuesday testimony, Fauci warned states could see spikes in coronavirus cases if they ignore public health recommendations, including waiting until a 14-day decline in virus cases before moving to the first phase of reopening. “The consequences could be really serious,” Fauci said.
Here are the top moments from the Senate committee hearing:
The Trump administration’s federal social distancing guidelines expired on April 30, and were not renewed, leaving it to states to determine their path forward in regard to easing restrictions. But Fauci warned Tuesday that if states ignore public health guidelines about when it’s safe to proceed with reopening, it could trigger more virus outbreaks that they may not be able to control. “[This] paradoxically would set you back — not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided — but, could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery,” Fauci said. A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from late April indicates that while a growing number of American households have lost jobs due to virus shutdowns, a majority of U.S. adults are uncomfortable with reopening. Recent figures also show a surge in infections at worksites — including meatpacking and poultry-processing plants and among construction workers in Texas, who recently returned back to work.
In his opening statement, Fauci detailed his team’s efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. Clinical trials for treatments could see promising results by early winter, he said. Meanwhile, schools across the country have either moved to online learning or canceled lessons for at least this school year. Faced with questions on when students may be able to return to school, Fauci told lawmakers that he does not expect a coronavirus vaccine to be widely available in time for the fall. “Even at the top speed that we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term,” Fauci said.
Later in his testimony, Fauci said the country will “more likely than not” see a vaccine within one to two years. He added that the high number of people recovering from the virus indicates the infection rates can be controlled. “The very fact that the body is capable of spontaneously clearing the virus tells me that, at least from a conceptual standpoint, we can stimulate the body with a vaccine that would induce a similar response,” Fauci said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., suggested that with mortality rates so low among children, some schools should be allowed to reopen, and those decisions should be made “school district by school district.” He also said that he didn’t believe Fauci should be the “end all” — the one person who gets to make decisions about when it’s safe to reopen — pointing to some people “on the other side” who are saying there’s not going to be a surge in cases as social distancing measures are relaxed. In response, Fauci warned that the country needs to be careful when making decisions on whether, and when, to reopen schools. “We don’t know everything about this virus, and we’d really better be very careful, particularly when it comes to children,” Fauci said. “The more and more we learn, we are seeing things about what this virus can do, that we didn’t see from the studies in China or in Europe.” He pointed to some children who have experienced an inflammatory syndrome with COVID-19 in cautioning against thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects of the disease.
Paul also asked Fauci about whether recovering COVID-19 patients have immunity to the virus. “We have no evidence that survivors of coronavirus don’t have immunity and a great deal of evidence to suggest that they do,” Paul added, before deferring to Fauci.
While Fauci said it is “a reasonable assumption” that recovering coronavirus patients have developed antibodies providing some protection, only long-term studies will confirm that theory.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., opened his line of questioning with a criticism of Trump for his attempts to “downplay” the seriousness of the virus and for removing officials who push back against the White House’s virus response. Sanders then asked Fauci to comment on current statistics indicating nearly 80,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., and whether it’s likely the true number of fatalities is far greater than reported. Fauci said that health experts believe the number of deaths likely is higher, adding that deaths have likely occurred among people who were not properly diagnosed. Testing availability has been a challenge across the country, and a major talking point for critics of Trump’s response since the beginning of the pandemic, with some patients being turned away for tests unless they show more extreme symptoms.
Sanders also asked Fauci whether the country could experience a second wave of infections later in the year. “Are we fearful that the situation could become worse in fall or winter?” Sanders asked. Fauci said that it’s “entirely conceivable” that a rebound of the virus will occur, but said he hopes that the U.S. will have better control over the virus at that point.
Disparate access to virus testing and treatments between wealthy and lower income Americans has also come under fire amid the pandemic. Specific data on coronavirus infection rates remains incomplete, but black and Latino communities have been particularly hard hit, with some places showing black people accounting for 70 percent of virus deaths in April. As many call for a free coronavirus vaccine, Sanders asked Giroir whether he thinks a future coronavirus vaccine should be available to all Americans regardless of income. “We need to be absolutely certain” that a treatment “reaches all segments of society regardless of their ability to pay or any other social determinants of health that there may be,” Giroir said. However, Giroir said that while he will advocate that treatment be made accessible to everyone, it is not within his power to make that decision.
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
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