States and municipalities face “really serious consequences” if they reopen too quickly from closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci told a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, responding to a question from ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.
The hearing was a first opportunity for figures in the White House task force to speak freely, without President Donald Trump literally looking over their shoulders, and taking the microphone to deliver often non-scientific views, denounce the news media, and excoriate his predecessors and political opponents.
Sen. Murray, a trenchant critic of lags in testing for the coronavirus, seized on the opportunity, giving Dr. Fauci the opportunity to lay out his views.
“What I have expressed is my concern that some areas cities and states jump over various checkpoints and prematurely open up without without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently,” Fauci said. “My concern is that we would see spikes that would turn into outbreaks.”
Spikes have already been seen in areas of Georgia and Tennessee, which have moved quickly to reopen and ignored the phased guidelines that have come recently from the White House. Trump has even publicly criticized Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for his pace in reopening the Peach State.
The hearing saw a curious contrast in senators’ responses. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the HELP Committee, spoke from Tennessee where he is self-distancing.
He distanced himself from the Trump administration, but did say of an early March hearing: “Even the experts underestimated COVID-19.” Other Republican senators steered clear of a Trump defense.
Alexander’s worry was whether thousands of students would be able to return to the University of Tennessee this fall, and hopes for treatment. But Dr. Fauci gave no reason for optimism that a vaccine will be developed early, saying such an expectation is “a bridge too far.”
By contrast, Murray sought to draw out a quartet of experts from the White House task force. “Families across the country are counting on you for the truth about the COVID-19 pandemic especially since it is clear they won’t get it from President Trump,” she told the foursome.
Murray was also a virtual presence in the hearing room. She appeared on screen from Washington, a state which felt 37 of the first 50 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus, which has now claimed nearly 900 lives in the Evergreen State.
“If a community or a state or a region doesn’t go by these guidelines and reopens, the consequences could be pretty dire, correct?” she asked.
“The consequences could be very serious,” Fauci replied.
Fauci also confirmed that the U.S.coronavirus death toll is “almost certainly” higher than reported. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, speculated that the toll could be 50% higher than officially reported.
“I’m not sure, Sen. Sanders if it is going to be 50% higher but most of us feel the number of deaths are likely higher than that number (80,000),” Fauci replied. “Because given the situation particularly in New York City, where they were really strapped with the very serious challenge to their health care system, that there may have been people who died at home who did who did have COVID who are not counted as COVID because they never really got to a hospital.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked why the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the United States is not improving three months into the pandemic. Answer: The pandemic has spread. (In Washington, the highest per capita incidence of the coronavirus has not been in Great Seattle, but in Yakima and Franklin Counties.)
Having advised six presidents on pandemics, Fauci said: “I am very 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,” Fauci said.
He applied that maxim when questioned by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Texas, who suggested children suffer less from coronavirus and that means schools can reopen.
“I think we’ve got to be careful if we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects,” Fauci replied.
As for progress in developing a vaccine, Fauci told Sen. Murray: “We have many candidates and we hope to have multiple winners . . . We hope to know in the late fall or winter.” He used an ice hockey analogy, hoping for “multiple shots on goal.”
Even before the Senate hearing convened, Fauci came under attack from Rep. Andy Bigs, R-Arizona, chair of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus. “Dr. Fauci has continually used his bully pulpit to bring public criticism on governors who are seeking to open up their states,” Biggs tweeted. “The Fauci-Birx team have replaced faith with fear and hope with despair.”
But Fauci was on the side of hope with one other task he undertook on Tuesday. He delivered a greeting to 2020 Jesuit high school graduates, and focused on the Jesuit tradition of social justice, saying “Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another.”