WASHINGTON – Dr. Anthony Fauci warned a Senate panel Tuesday that easing stay-at-home restrictions must be done carefully and treatments and vaccines are likely eventually, but not before school starts in the fall.
The director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases was one of four top health officials who described guidelines for reopening the economy for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Social distancing restrictions meant some senators, Fauci and other witnesses participated by video conference from their homes and officers. Several senators attended the Washington hearing in person, but GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander led the meeting from his home in Tennessee.
Here are six key points from the hearing:
Fauci: Ignoring guidelines may lead to ‘suffering and death’
Fauci said not following federal guidelines such as testing people for infection, tracing their contacts and isolating them to prevent the disease from spreading could lead to “some suffering and death” that could be avoided.
Guidelines to states include waiting until cases have declined for at least two weeks before easing restrictions. Communities also have to be capable of adequately responding when the virus inevitably returns, he said.
But Fauci warned that if states reopen without precautions, it presents a “real risk that you will trigger an outbreak,” which could hurt the economy again.
“You can almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward,” he said. “That is my main concern.”
Fauci on coronavirus: ‘We don’t have it completely under control’
Despite declines in infections and hospitalizations in some areas, Fauci warned about spikes and said the virus is nowhere near being contained.
“We don’t have it completely under control,” he told Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., criticized the contrast between health experts warning about the dangers of opening states too early mere hours after Trump said the country prevailed against the virus.
“This is infuriating to many of us because it comes hours after the president declared that we have prevailed over coronavirus, which I’m just going to tell you is going to make it harder on state leaders to keep social distancing restrictions in place,” he said.
Trump promoted the country’s testing Monday in a Rose Garden news conference, saying the 9 million tests so far made America a worldwide leader.
“We have met the moment, and we have prevailed,” said Trump, who later said he meant the country prevailed on testing.
Murphy also slammed the lack of detailed federal guidance as states begin to reopen. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said state officials could contact his agency with their questions. He said nationwide recommendations are under review and would be released soon.
Murphy said soon wasn’t good enough.
“You work for a president who is frankly undermining our efforts to comply with the guidance that you have given us,” Murphy said. “Then the guidance you have provided is criminally vague.”
Fauci: Finding a vaccine ‘definitely not a long shot’
Fauci expressed optimism Tuesday that a vaccine will be found for the coronavirus within a year or two. His confidence stemmed from the fact that most people can fight off the virus themselves, offering scientists an opportunity to devise a way to get the body to combat it better.
“It’s definitely not a long shot,” Fauci said. “It is much more likely than not that we will get a vaccine.”
Fauci also dismissed the prospect that the virus might disappear without a vaccine, a claim trumpeted by President Donald Trump.
“That is just not going to happen because it’s such a highly transmissible virus,” Fauci said. “Even if we get better control over the summer months, it is likely that there will be virus somewhere on this planet that will eventually get back to us.”
Fauci said better testing will be available by fall to identify and trace who is sick and there will be time to stock up on emergency supplies.
“I hope that if we do have the threat of a second wave, we will be able to deal with it very effectively, to prevent it from becoming an outbreak not only worse than now, but much, much less,” Fauci said.
Vaccine, treatment unlikely by start of school year
While Fauci is optimistic about scientists developing a vaccine, he doesn’t expect one in time for the start of school in August.
“In this case, the idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of bridge too far,” Fauci said. “Even at top speed that we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school, this term. What they really want is to know if they are safe.”
Health officials said the key for students to feel safe in returning to school will be more widespread testing, to isolate students who get infected, and good health practices such as social distancing.
Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for health, said the current rate of 10 million tests per month could be expanded by 40 million or 50 million by September to provide more surveillance.
Romney: Testing ‘nothing to celebrate’
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said U.S. testing for coronavirus is “nothing to celebrate” because the country “treaded water” during the early stages of the pandemic while other countries such as South Korea tested people aggressively to curb the outbreak.
Trump said Monday the U.S. prevailed in testing for the virus because it has conducted 9 million tests so far, which is the most of any country and more per capita than most countries.
But Romney said by March 6, the U.S. conducted only 2,000 tests while South Korea completed 140,000. Romney said more aggressive testing was part of the reason why South Korea has had 256 deaths, while the U.S. has more than 80,000.
But Romney said while he understood why a politician would frame data for political gain, he didn’t expect that from an admiral such as Giroir.
“Yesterday you celebrated that we had done more tests and more tests per capita even than South Korea. You ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak, while we treaded water during February and March,” Romney said. “I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever.”
How to address future pandemics
Alexander, the committee chairman, said more hearings are likely to learn from the current pandemic about how to prepare for the next one.
Future hearings will cover issues such as how to develop treatments and vaccines faster, he said. Lawmakers will study what ought to be part of the national stockpile of emergency supplies and who should manage it – and how to prevent states and hospitals from selling off emergency equipment between crises. He also said Congress should address how to avoid driving hospitals into bankruptcy and how lawmakers should fund its priorities.
“I want to make sure that we do that this year and our collective memory is short so while we are all worried about this we need to not only deal with this crisis but get ready for the next one,” Alexander said.