WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Tuesday of serious consequences if governors reopen state economies prematurely, saying he fears spikes in coronavirus infections could morph into further outbreaks of the disease.
Testifying by videoconference before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, ticked through the criteria the White House said states should meet before reopening.
"My concern, that if some areas, city, 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 that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks," Fauci said in response to a question from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Fauci and two of the other witnesses — Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration — testified by videoconference Tuesday because they are self-quarantining after possible exposure to COVID-19. The fourth witness, Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, who is the administration's coronavirus testing coordinator, also testified remotely but is not in self-quarantine.
A number of senators also participated in the hearing by videoconference, while others attended in person, sitting apart from one another at the dais to maximize social distancing. Some wore masks in the room, while others had nothing covering their faces.
The hearing was the Democrats' first opportunity since March to grill top administration officials on their response to the coronavirus. Murray, the top Democrat on the committee, said in her opening statement that the U.S. needs "dramatically more testing," but she added that testing "alone won't be enough to reopen our country."
"We still need far more personal protective equipment than has been available for our health care workers on the front lines, and we will need far more for other workers as we reopen," she said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who led the hearing remotely while in self-quarantine after a staff member tested positive, said in his opening remarks that while he believes the level of testing in the U.S. is "impressive," it is "not nearly enough."
In his opening statement, Fauci spoke about a program launched by the National Institutes of Health to support the development of different tests that would be evaluated and selected in a "'Shark Tank'-like" process, referring to the popular show about business entrepreneurs.
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that at least eight candidates for possible COVID-19 vaccines are in clinical development and that he hopes officials will know by "late fall and early winter" whether trials are successful.
"We have many candidates or hope to have multiple winners," said Fauci, who said the goal is to have multiple vaccines effective in preventing the disease in an effort to expand global availability.
Fauci spoke about possible treatments, including the drug remdesivir, which he said has been studied in trials, one of which produced "only a modest result."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Fauci whether the national death toll is unacceptable and whether the U.S. has to do better.
"Of course, you always have to do better," Fauci said, but he urged officials not to compare the U.S. to countries like South Korea.
Romney blasts testing effort
Giroir testified that by the early fall, the U.S. will have dramatically ramped up testing from what he said will have been about 12 million swabs a month by the end of May.
"By September, taking every aspect of development, authorization, manufacturing and supply chain into consideration, we project that our nation will be capable of producing at least 40 to 50 million tests per month," he said.
During a round of questioning toward the end of the hearing, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, criticized Giroir's comments touting testing efforts during a White House event on Monday.
"I understand that politicians are going to frame data in a way that's most positive politically — of course, I don't expect that from admirals," Romney said, referring to Giroir's status as an admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. "But yesterday, you celebrated that we had done more tests and more tests per capita even than South Korea, but you ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak.
"Well, we treaded water during February and March, and as a result, by March 6, the U.S. had completed 2,000 tests, whereas South Korea had conducted more than 140,000 tests," he continued. "Partially as a result of that, they have 256 deaths and we have almost 80,000 deaths.
"I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever," Romney said.
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Noted that President Donald Trump continues to blame former President Barack Obama for the crisis, Romney asked Fauci whether the former president or Trump are responsible.
"No, senator, not at all," Fauci answered. "Certainly President Obama nor President Trump are responsible for not having a vaccine."
While most lawmakers looked to Fauci for his expertise and analysis, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was critical, telling him that "as much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don't think you're the end-all" and that "we'll be making a big mistake if we don't open schools in the fall."
Earlier in the hearing, Fauci had said, "The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far."
Paul also expressed doubt outside the hearing that any government precautions would have reduced the number of deaths from the coronavirus in New York City, a center of the virus — contradicting Fauci's main message in his testimony that reopening states too soon could result in unnecessary deaths.
'Needless suffering and death'
In an email to The New York Times late Monday, Fauci said he planned to warn senators at the hearing about the dire consequences of reopening too early.
"The major message that I wish to convey to the Senate HLP committee tomorrow is the danger of trying to open the country prematurely," he wrote. "If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to 'Open America Again,' then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country. This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal."
Democrats have blasted Trump for failing to put together a national testing strategy that would allow millions of people to get tested for the disease quickly. Trump blocked Fauci from testifying before the House last week, saying its members are "a bunch of Trump haters."
Fauci testified after Trump gave the impression of an improving situation Monday, when he falsely claimed in a tweet that "coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere." He also accused Democrats of not reopening their states more quickly because they are trying to hurt his re-election prospects.
Some governors have begun to reopen their state economies even though a number of them have not met criteria outlined in White House guidelines for reopening states. The plan unveiled by the coronavirus task force last month said states must first document a decrease in cases or positive tests within a 14-day period before starting to reopen.