Dr. Anthony Fauci and several top federal health officials on Tuesday testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee about reopening the US economy in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, and Fauci warned of both health and economic consequences for states or cities reopening their businesses too soon.
Here’s a look at what happened during the hearing:
Fauci warned of new outbreaks if the coronavirus restrictions are lifted too soon
Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told the committee that states or cities that skip over benchmarks in the White House reopening guidelines may start to backslide, which could both harm public health and cause further setbacks to the economy as new outbreaks pop up.
Fauci said it’s not just about reopening too soon, states also need to have processes in place to deal with new cases as they arise and utilize testing, isolation, and contact tracing.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control,” Fauci said. “It would even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery, because it would almost turn the clock back rather than going forward."
Fauci said the death toll is likely higher than the 80,000 that’s been reported
Pressed by Senator Bernie Sanders, Fauci agreed that the true death toll from the coronavirus outbreak was likely higher than the 80,000 that have currently been recorded. Fauci noted that in New York City, as the health care system became strained, there may have been people who died at home who were positive for coronavirus but were not counted.
"The number is likely higher. I don’t know exactly what percent higher but almost certainly it’s higher,” he said of the death toll.
Fauci talked more about whether there could be a resurgence in the fall
“I think that possibility does exist,” Fauci told the committee. But, he said, if the United States is prepared to deal with it, the resurgence could be manageable. That would involve an increase in testing and stockpiling of personal protective equipment.
“We will be able to deal with it very effectively,” if those goals are met, he said.
Schools will need to decide to reopen without a vaccine or widely available treatment
Fauci did not offer an opinion on whether schools should reopen in the fall, but said administrators and parents shouldn’t expect a vaccine or treatment to be available by then.
“If this were a situation where you had a vaccine, that would really be the end of the issue in a positive way. But as I mentioned in my opening remarks, even at the top speed we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term," he said.
Admiral Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar” at the Department of Health and Human Services, discussed various testing strategies that could be implemented to identify outbreaks early and isolate those affected, including the testing of sewage to see if coronavirus is present.
Fauci also told the committee that reopening schools should be looked at regionally.
Fauci had a tense exchange with Senator Rand Paul
Paul, who tested positive for coronavirus early in the pandemic, called the possibility of nationwide closure of schools in the fall “ridiculous.” He called on public health officials to be more “humble” about what they do and don’t know about the virus, arguing that children are not suffering from the virus at the rate of older populations.
Fauci countered that it is exactly because there’s so much he doesn’t know about the virus that he urges caution in exposing children. He cited reports out of New York City that children have died of a rare inflammatory syndrome that could be linked to COVID-19.
“We don’t know everything about this virus and we really better be pretty careful, particularly when it comes to children,” Fauci said. “I think we better be careful [that] we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune from the deleterious effects.”
Senator Mitt Romney criticized the testing situation in the United States, citing South Korea
Romney chided Giroir for praising US testing capacity, calling the situation “nothing to celebrate whatsoever.”
“I understand politicians are going to frame data in a way that’s most positive politically. Of course I don’t expect that from admirals. But yesterday you celebrated that we had done more tests and more tests per capita than South Korea. But you ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak, but we treaded water during February and March," he said. “I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever.”
The virtual hearing wasn’t without its flaws
Like millions of other Americans who are working from home for the first time, those joining the hearing by videoconference experienced some bumps. At one point, a dog could be heard barking loudly as Senator Richard Burr tried to question the hearing witnesses.