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Health officials warn lawmakers that lifting restrictions could trigger new outbreaks

New warnings from U.S. public health officials Tuesday emphasized that the national fight against COVID-19 is far from over -- and that lifting restrictions too quickly could cause unnecessary deaths. The sobering message was delivered as senior health figures, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, testified virtually before a Senate committee, and the U.S. death toll passed 82,000. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are new warnings tonight from the nation's public health leaders the fight against COVID-19 is far from over, and reopening too quickly could bring it roaring back.

    The warnings dominated this day, as U.S. coronavirus deaths passed 82,000.

    Amna Nawaz begins our coverage.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On Capitol Hill, a sobering message on the devastating U.S. death toll:

  • Anthony Fauci:

    The number is likely higher. I don't know exactly what percent higher, but almost certainly it's higher.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And a blunt assessment of the national response so far.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Do we have the coronavirus contained?

  • Anthony Fauci:

    If you think that we have it completely under control, we don't.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, appeared virtually before a Senate committee today, the first such hearing since the pandemic began.

    Amid a national debate over reopening, a stark warning to state leaders:

  • Anthony Fauci:

    There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will 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 try to get economic recovery.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Fauci was joined on the panel by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, And Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Fauci, Redfield, and Hahn are all self-quarantining after contact with an infected White House staffer.

    The hearing itself was a logistical challenge for senators, many of whom are working remotely.

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.:

    In a one-time exception, some senators, including the chairman, are participating by videoconference.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In a Senate first, committee Chair Lamar Alexander conducted the hearing from home, in self-quarantine, after a staff member tested positive for the virus.

    The hearing room remained mostly empty. Senators inside the room sat six feet apart, and most wore masks, including makeshift ones, like Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.

    The questions at times reflected the nation's political divide.

    Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat from Connecticut, slammed the White House response, citing reports they shelved CDC guidance on reopening.

  • Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.:

    Why didn't this plan get released?

  • Robert Redfield:

    We have generated a series of guidances, as you know, and is — this outbreak response has evolved from a CDC to an all-of-government response.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While there was bipartisan concern about a lack of testing so far, as from Utah Senator Mitt Romney…

  • Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah:

    By March 6, the U.S. had completed just 2,000 tests, whereas South Korea had conducted more than 140,000 tests.

    I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … some Republicans, like Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, echoed President Trump's concern about information-sharing from China.

  • Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.:

    I'm incredibly concerned about the cover-up and the misinformation coming from China and their efforts to suppress lifesaving information at the outset of this outbreak.

  • Robert Redfield:

    There were discussions with the U.S. personnel that were (AUDIO GAP) with Chinese CDC.

    I personally had discussions as early — I think CDC did as early as January 2, and myself January 3, with my counterpart to discuss this. So, at a scientific level, we had very good interactions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky called into question the warnings around reopening.

  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.:

    I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what's best for the economy. And as much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don't think you're the end-all. There are people on the other side saying, there is not going to be a surge and that we can safely reopen the economy.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    I am careful and hopefully humble in knowing that I don't know everything about this disease, and that's why I am very reserved in making broad predictions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, at the White House, where Vice President Pence was seen arriving earlier today wearing a mask, President Trump held a closed-door meeting with Republican senators and did not comment on the day's proceedings.

    As the number of U.S. infections and deaths continue to rise, a new poll from Pew Research suggests where the public is looking for answers. A majority of Americans, over 60 percent, now say it is primarily the federal government's responsibility to make sure there's sufficient testing before states can safely reopen.

    Still, a vocal minority continues to clamor for restrictions to be lifted faster. Protesters in Raleigh, North Carolina, today demanded the governor accelerate plans to reopen the state's economy.

    In Texas, where restrictions are already easing, the state today required all nursing home residents and workers be tested to slow the virus' spread. In California. Governor Gavin Newsom today unveiled new state guidelines for reopening, noting local governments could remain more strict if needed. Los Angeles County said today stay-at-home advisory restriction could continue through July.

    Back on Capitol Hill, lawmakers working to mitigate the economic meltdown forged on with plans for another relief package.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed for a massive $3 trillion spending plan.

  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    We must think big for the people now, because, if we don't, know it will cost more in lives and livelihood later. Not acting is the most expensive course.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed back.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    We can't spend enough money to prop this economy up forever. People need to be able to begin to be productive again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As the rest of the country awaits much-needed help, here in the nation's capital, the debate over how to help rages on.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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