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Fauci says it’s ‘ill advised’ for states to roll back COVID-19 measures, likens current state of pandemic to a game of tug of war

Dr. Anthony Fauci.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said Wednesday it was “ill advised” for states to relax measures in place to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and likened the current stage of the pandemic to a game of “tug of war,” with variants of the virus emerging and governors rolling back restrictions while vaccinations are ramping up.

“The baseline that we’re at right now between 60 and 70,000 cases a day is unacceptably high for any significant pulling back on mitigation,” Fauci said during a panel on the intersection between journalism and public health hosted by Brandeis University.


“We’re in a very critical phase right now, because we’re in a very nice deflection,” Fauci said later in the discussion. “It’s starting to plateau. We’re seeing what might happen that the danger of people pulling back, and yet at the same time, we have vaccines being rolled out.”

This week, the governors of Texas and Mississippi said they were lifting mask orders and allowing businesses in the states to return to full capacity. Governor Charlie Baker on Monday moved Massachusetts to the next step of its reopening plan, easing capacity restrictions at restaurants and allowing indoor performance venues to reopen.

Officials in President Biden’s administration have been forceful in voicing their concerns about easing restrictions too soon and the risk of losing the progress states have made in recent weeks with declining numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases.

On Wednesday, Biden described the moves by Texas and Mississippi as a “big mistake” and “Neanderthal thinking.” Earlier in the week, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said she is “really worried” about states rolling back public health measures, saying it is “not the time.”

Fauci was joined by Dr. Atul Gawande, a writer and surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News, in the wide-ranging discussion about the press’ role during the pandemic and the outsized influence of politics on the country’s ability to contain the virus. Neil Swidey, Brandeis professor and editor-at-large of The Boston Globe Magazine, moderated the conversation.


During the event, Fauci also reiterated comments he has made in recent weeks about the difficulty of implementing public health measures while being met with resistance from many Americans for political purposes.

“If ever you want to have a historic pandemic, don’t have it at a time when there’s intense divisiveness in society, which is what we really went through,” Fauci said. “As difficult … as a response to a historic pandemic is, it becomes extraordinarily problematic when you try to guide the country through difficult public health measures that have implications well beyond health, namely on the economy and on indirect effects on people’s lives.”

In an interview last month, Fauci said he felt political divisiveness was the most compelling reason the US, which has recorded more than 515,000 deaths due to the virus, has “done worse than we should have done,” and discussed former president Donald Trump’s reluctance to adhere to and promote public health recommendations to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Gawande said Trump’s decision to speak publicly against scientists’ conclusions about the virus during an election year cost the country “hundreds of thousands of lives.”


“[Trump] believed some of the public health science coming his way but that it wasn’t viable politically,” Gawande said.

Fauci also described the factors that informed public health experts’ initial guidance that most Americans didn’t need to wear face masks in the early weeks of the pandemic. At first, Fauci said, there were shortages of masks and concerns that health care workers would not have enough personal protective equipment, there was a lack of good data that showed masks were effective outside of health care settings, and scientists were initially unaware that infections were transmitted by asymptomatic spread.

Conservative lawmakers and public figures, including Trump, have criticized public health experts, and Fauci in particular, for their initial pandemic recommendations. The idea that the experts were “wrong” as the virus first emerged became the basis from which many officials decided to implement measures that were at odds with what experts suggested, Fauci said.

Reversing course on face masks became “the calling card of ‘don’t listen to anything any of them say because they’re wrong,’” Fauci said. “That was the governor of South Dakota’s mantra this weekend, saying ‘they’re wrong therefore I’m going to do all these things.’ It becomes an almost impossible thing to counter.”

Fauci’s comment was a reference to a speech by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend in which she said, “I don’t know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot,” a comment that elicited cheers from the audience.


Rosenthal said revising the government’s position on masks wasn’t a “flip flop,” but the product of learning, which the Trump administration was “loathe to do,” she said.

While connecting politics during an election year and the emergence of pseudoscience amid a pandemic, Gawande said he was struck by the fact that CPAC featured Noem and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, “the most celebrated political figures for the next president” beyond Trump, because “they’ve made a point of defying the public health scientists and that they have made a point of specifically attacking [Fauci].”

Gawande also said he believes that science journalism has been effective in reaching people, because they changed their behavior to adhere to public health recommendations. Early on in the pandemic, Gawande noted, residents of Massachusetts and elderly people in Florida adhered to public health measures at roughly the same rate, despite the governors of those states implementing different guidance and restrictions.

“[Seniors] stopped going out to the movies, they stopped going out to restaurants and bars at the same rate that Massachusetts did without the rules and the government, and the reason why is because the information got around,” Gawande said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Amanda Kaufman can be reached at Follow her @amandakauf1.