Fauci warns that reopening too soon could cause ‘suffering and death’

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci (R) and Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield ride on an escalator before a briefing for members of Congress on coronavirus on Feb. 28, 2020. Fauci warned a Senate committee on May 12 against reopening the economy too precipitously. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A top Trump administration health official has warned U.S. senators that reopening the economy too quickly could cause suffering, death, and an even longer economic setback.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, warned lawmakers Tuesday against a surge of COVID-19 cases if states, cities, and regions disregard the government’s “checkpoints” on when and how to pull back from mitigation measures.

“If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might 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 trying to get economic recovery,” said Fauci.

“We would almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward.”

His statements came during a highly anticipated hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. He last testified before the panel on March 3, before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the novel coronavirus.

The unprecedented hearing included remote testimony from Fauci and the other witnesses, including representatives of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration.

About half of the senators were in the hearing room — spaced six feet apart on an extended dais that took the whole room, where spectators would usually sit. Some senators wore masks but took them off for questioning. Other senators dialed in from their homes.

Overall, Fauci said that some parts of the country are seeing spikes in infection, while the curve looks flat or is trending downward in other areas.

“I think we are going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have, by any means, total control of this outbreak,” Fauci said.

His remarks were markedly more guarded than the more optimistic portrait Trump outlined during a White House briefing Monday.

Trump said the number of coronavirus cases were going down “almost everywhere,” even though many states show a steady number of new cases. An internal report obtained by NBC shows cases spiking in some communities.

“We have met the moment and we have prevailed,” Trump told reporters at the White House briefing, with tables displaying testing and treatment materials on either side of his podium. “Americans do whatever it takes to find solutions, pioneer breakthroughs, and harness the energies we need to achieve total victory.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’ on vaccine

Fauci gave a guarded but optimistic update on the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. The process is moving faster than for any vaccine in history, and there are at least eight vaccines in various stages of development. Researchers may know if they are successful as early as late fall or early winter.

“We have many candidates and hope to have multiple winners,” he said.

Fauci predicted it is “more likely than not” that one or more of them will work well enough to provide herd immunity from the virus, while admitting there are still significant research hurdles to overcome in ensuring the vaccines are safe for wide distribution.

Fauci acknowledged “there is no guarantee that the vaccine is actually going to be effective,” but said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

The health experts attending the hearing agreed the return to work and school cannot rely solely on a vaccine, which will not be ready for the next academic year, even under the aggressive timelines.

Rather, they said, reopening schools in the fall will rely on more widely-available tests for the virus, isolation of infected individuals, and hygiene and social distancing protocols.

Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, told the committee that 25 million to 30 million rapid-result tests should be available this summer. He predicted the nation will be capable of performing at least 40 million to 50 million tests per month by the fall, if needed.

Giroir said schools may implement periodic surveillance and testing in conjunction with the CDC and local health department. Other strategies for testing could include “pooling” samples, whereby a single test could analyze samples from 20 students.

“There are some experimental approaches that look interesting, if not promising,” he said. “For example, wastewater from an entire dorm or an entire segment of a campus could be tested to determine whether there’s coronavirus in that sewage, the wastewater.”