States and cities that reopen their economies too soon in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic will suffer serious consequences, including increases in illnesses and deaths, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told lawmakers.
If jurisdictions leap over certain checkpoints — failing to observe at least two weeks of declines in COVID-19 cases in their communities and not having sufficient testing, contact tracing and isolation measures in place — they risk triggering new outbreaks that could get out of control, Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on May 12. That outcome would result in a setback for those communities' economies, he said.
Fauci and three other officials — U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir — testified before the committee remotely via videoconference.
Fauci, Redfield and Hahn were avoiding most public places and self-quarantining after recently coming into contact with a White House employee who tested positive for COVID-19.
The Trump administration later on May 12 issued a statement saying those three officials would participate in person at White House meetings if their attendance was needed as long as they were asymptomatic, screened, monitored for fever and other symptoms, wore masks and stayed at least 6 feet away from other people.
Most of the senators on the panel also attended the hearing by videoconference, while those in the committee room sat at least 6 feet apart, minding social distancing guidelines recommended by the CDC and the Senate physician.
The head of the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was under a self-imposed 14-day quarantine after one of his staff members recently tested positive for COVID-19.
President Donald Trump has been pushing states to reopen after the nation went into a social distancing shutdown in mid-March under the recommendations of the CDC.
Since COVID-19 was first identified in the U.S. in January, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed, climbing to nearly 15% — though some economists say it may be well past 20%, since some Americans have stopped looking for work during the pandemic.
The U.S. has reported nearly 1.4 million COVID-19 infections, and about 82,000 Americans have died of the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
Back to school is key to reopening
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questioned why local jurisdictions should be taking advice from federal scientists and officials, particularly on when to reopen schools — a key action that will need to happen before many parents can return to work and businesses can reopen.
"I don't think you're the end-all," Paul told Fauci. "I don't think you're the one person that gets to make a decision. We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side saying there's not going to be a surge, that we can safely reopen the economy and the facts will bear this out."
Fauci noted that he was only one official among many people in the administration involved in hashing out the federal guidelines for reopening the nation.
"I'm a scientist, a physician and a public health official," he said. "I give advice according to the best scientific evidence."
But Fauci warned that "we don't know everything about this virus and we really better be very careful, particularly when it comes to children, because the more and more we learn, we're seeing things about what this virus can do that we didn't see from the studies in China or in Europe."
Fauci noted that a number of children who had COVID-19 — though a small percentage — have developed an inflammatory syndrome similar to Kawasaki disease, with some of those youngsters dying of the condition.
No vaccine by fall school term
Fauci said there are at least 100 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in development, and he anticipates at least one of them to be successful. But he reiterated that there are no guarantees. He also cautioned that some of those products could make the disease worse — an outcome known as vaccine-induced immune enhancement.
In a May 11 article in the journal Science, Fauci and his boss, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, laid out the government's strategic approach for a COVID-19 vaccine, noting a number of innovative platforms being used. The administration also has launched a Manhattan Project-like public-private initiative — Operation Warp Speed — to accelerate the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
But, Fauci said, the idea of having a vaccine or even treatments to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall school term "would be something that would be a bit of bridge too far."
"Even at top speed that we're going, we don't see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term," Fauci said.
Until a vaccine is available, the nation will need to rely on wide-scale testing, he said.
But Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the U.S. record in testing so far is "nothing to celebrate whatsoever," condemning remarks Trump made a day earlier where he said his administration had "prevailed" on that front.