WASHINGTON — Top public health officials warned Tuesday that the United States risks new outbreaks of the coronavirus if cities and states reopen too quickly, and said the nation needs to beef up its testing and contact tracing capabilities to prevent a “resurgence.”
Testifying before a congressional committee for the first time since March, Dr. Anthony Fauci said states must be prepared for an “inevitable” spike in cases when reopening and warned them not to loosen restrictions before seeing a decline in new infections over the previous 14 days, as recommended by federal guidelines.
Most states that are beginning to open have not seen such declines, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
“If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control,” Fauci said, adding that could lead to “suffering and death that could be avoided” — as well as economic damage.
The frank warnings about the attempts to control the virus stood in stark contrast to the optimistic portrayal by President Trump, who just a day earlier appeared to declare victory on several closely watched metrics.
“If we do not respond in an adequate way when the fall comes, given that it is without a doubt that there will be infections in the community, then we run the risk of having a resurgence,” Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, testified at a Senate hearing on safely returning to work and school that vividly demonstrated the challenge.
Senators were forced to remotely question the witnesses via video, as most of those experts remained at home in quarantine after exposure to a top White House staffer who tested positive for coronavirus last week. The chair of the committee, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, was also self-quarantining after one of his aides tested positive for the virus, underscoring the gap between the upbeat rhetoric of Trump and some of his allies and the reality of the challenges of working during the pandemic, even for the nation’s most powerful.
The irony was not lost on several of the committee’s Democrats. They pressed the experts on how Americans could feel comfortable going back to work or school when they lack the frequent testing available at the White House, which is nonetheless dealing with at least two infections among its staff. Those infections have led to new precautions at the White House this week, with more staffers wearing masks and now daily coronavirus tests for members of the media who get close to the president.
Trump, who has been calling for states to reopen, will not have physical contact with Vice President Mike Pence for the next few days after he was potentially exposed to the virus.
“Lives are at stake,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, who also attended the hearing remotely. “We need a plan before we start to reopen."
Fauci also warned that it was unlikely a vaccine would be ready by the fall, when principals and college presidents have to decide whether to bring students back. An antiviral drug has shown just “modest” benefits in treating coronavirus patients, he said, and a vaccine will almost certainly not be ready by the end of the year. Without a vaccine, the virus will continue to be a problem, he added.
Fauci also confirmed what independent reviews have shown: the death toll is most likely higher than the 80,000 currently reported.
Fauci’s tone clashed with the message from Trump, who said Friday, “This is going to go away without a vaccine" and has said the nation has “prevailed” on testing.
Trump, whose aides are regularly tested for the virus, also said on Monday that Americans would “very soon” enjoy the same protections that he does of frequent testing. “They want our country open,” he said. “I want our country open, too.”
But his public health experts on Tuesday cautioned that testing everyone on a daily basis is not feasible, and that Americans should continue to try to social distance or wear masks when that’s not possible in order to keep themselves safe.
“If we’re able to get masks for everybody in the White House, I hope we can get masks to every nursing home employee who needs it,” said Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire.
Senator Elizabeth Warren asked Fauci directly if the United States had contained the virus and he acknowledged there was more work to do. “I think we’re going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have by any means total control of this outbreak,” he said.
The hearing featured some bipartisan criticism of the administration, with several Republicans urging it to do better on testing. Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, chastised one of the witnesses, Admiral Brett Giroir, the testing czar for the Health and Human Services Department, for painting a rosy picture of the country’s testing performance. He and Trump have frequently touted that the United States has now tested more people per capita for the virus than South Korea has.
“I understand politicians are going to frame data in a way that’s most positive politically,” Romney said. “Of course, they don’t expect that from admirals.”
South Korea contained the virus by testing early in the outbreak, Romney continued, keeping its death toll to 300 people, squashing the virus, and then no longer needing to test as many people for it. The United States, by contrast, “treaded water in February in March” and now has more than 80,000 fatalities, he said.
“I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever,” Romney said.
Giroir said the administration will test nearly 4 percent of the US population this month and will be able to ramp up to 50 million tests per month by September, if necessary. That’s still below the at least 2 million tests per day that some specialists say is necessary to track the disease when people go back to work.
Some of Trump’s allies criticized the experts’ cautious tone. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has recovered from COVID-19, said Fauci wasn’t the “end-all” of experts, and noted that Sweden has not closed its schools or all of its businesses and still did not have as many virus deaths as some harder-hit countries such as Italy.
“We’re opening up a lot of economies around the US and I hope that people who are predicting doom and gloom . . . will admit that they’re wrong when there isn’t a surge,” Paul said. He criticized the idea that schools could remain closed next year, pointing out that poorer children will be affected the most.
Fauci said the effects of the virus on children are still unknown, pointing to doctors who have flagged a pediatric inflammatory syndrome potentially linked to coronavirus.
“I think we better be careful and not cavalier in thinking children are completely immune,” Fauci said.
Fauci, Giroir, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration, all testified remotely, with most senators also making appearances via video. Most of the handful of senators who appeared in person wore masks or bandannas, and sat at least 6 feet apart from each other in a largely empty Senate hearing room.
“It is really clear to me we have more work to do before we can safely get back to normal life,” Murray said at the hearing’s end.
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.