Dr Anthony Fauci the US’s top infectious diseases doctor and an important member of the White House coronavirus taskforce has warned senators Tuesday that the “consequences could be really serious” if the country reopens too soon.
Fauci is one of the four top government doctors to testify remotely at the high-profile hearing where many lawmakers and witnesses joined through video conference on Tuesday before the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He has also appeared as perhaps the nation’s most respected voice during the COVID-19 crisis.
Speaking to the Senate committee, Dr Fauci was subdued but straightforward in his testimony but his comments still contradicted President Trump, who has increasingly, in recent days, urged for states to re-open businesses.
Dr Anthony Fauci said if federal guidelines to resume are not followed, “little spikes” will become outbreaks. Although the White House has set out guidelines for reopening, it is eventually up to state governors to make the decisions on how to ease the lockdown.
Various US states have already begun lifting lockdown orders. Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska and South Carolina have already allowed some businesses to reopen and have published plans that call for more rules to be relaxed. These states have also reported infection rates that are rising, not falling.
“My concern that if some areas — cities, states or what have you — jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up, without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Fauci said in the testimony.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may 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,” Fauci added.
“There is no doubt even under the best of circumstances when you pull back on mitigation you will see some cases appear. It’s not only doing it at the appropriate time, but it’s also having in place the capability of responding when the inevitable return of infections occurs.”
He warned of the danger of triggering an outbreak that officials would not be able to control, adding such an outbreak would set back economic recovery and could lead to “needless suffering and deaths”.
Fauci was referring to the White House’s Opening Up America Again plan, which covers three 14-day phases that states should consider executing as they allow schools and businesses to re-open.
He also said the US death toll due to coronavirus is definitely more than 80,000 because of cases that have gone unreported but he does not “know exactly what percentage higher”.
He mentioned there are multiple vaccines in development but “no guarantee” if any will be effective, though based on his understanding of other viruses, he is “cautiously optimistic”.
“We have many candidates and hope to have multiple winners,” he added. “In other words, it’s multiple shots on goal.”
Dr Fauci has also tested negative therefore he will continue to work from home for the time being and will be tested regularly.
When questioned about the possibility of a rebound in autumn of the “highly transmissible virus”, Dr Fauci said one is “entirely conceivable and possible”.
“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.”
The United States only has more than 1.3 million potential cases confirmed according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker – about six times as many as any other country. The number of coronavirus-related deaths has now exceeded 80,000.
President Trump insisted that the US had “prevailed” in testing people for coronavirus infections in a news conference on Monday.
But as of this week, the US has tested only 2.75% of its 330m population, whereas no state has tested 10% of residents.
In a separate development, White House staff have been assigned to wear masks when entering the West Wing after two aides have tested positive for coronavirus.
Mr Trump, however, said he did not need to follow the directive as he kept “far away from everyone”.