WASHINGTON — Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, warned of “suffering and death that could be avoided” and further economic damage if states reopen too quickly and said the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus is likely higher than the 80,000 reported.
His comments came during highly anticipated Senate testimony Tuesday as he and other leading federal health officials were pressed on whether the country is ready to reopen. The panel’s chairman and witnesses are appearing remotely in an unusual session that includes the first congressional testimony from Fauci, a key member of the White House task force, since President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus crisis a national emergency March 13.
Appearing with Fauci are Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration; Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The hearing before the Republican-led Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is titled “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.” But Democrats are also seizing the opportunity to focus on shortcomings in the Trump administration’s response.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the panel’s chairman, began the questioning by asking Fauci whether college and school administrators could feel safe welcoming students back to campus in the fall, and the likelihood of a treatment or vaccine becoming available by then.
“The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci said. “The drug that has shown some degree of efficacy was modest and was in hospitalized patients.”
Fauci said whether students will feel safe returning to school will also largely depend on testing capabilities.
Giroir said he expects the country to have the capacity to conduct 25 million to 30 million tests a month by the fall, which could allow schools to have a surveillance strategy in place to quickly identify and isolate confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Pressed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Fauci warned that states that fail to obey federal reopening guidelines and move too quickly to restart their economies would put themselves at risk of new outbreaks that could be hard to control.
“If some areas, cities, 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,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I have been very clear in my message — to try to the best extent possible to go by the guidelines, which have been very well thought out and very well delineated.”
Any loosening of restrictions, Fauci added, would lead to new cases, but those new cases could be manageable so long as states have the proper infrastructure in place. “It’s the ability and the capability of responding to those cases with good identification, isolation and contact tracing [that] will determine whether you can continue to go forward as you try to reopen America,” he said.
Murray also pressed Giroir, the federal official overseeing coronavirus testing efforts, on a strategic testing plan required to be submitted later this month to Congress under the terms of recent legislation.
Giroir said that the administration had numerical targets in place for testing in each state but cautioned that they stand to be revised based on the course of the virus’s spread.
“Yes, there will be targets,” he said. “The targets will need to change based on the evidence that we see. … So we really just need to be very humble about this. We need to look at the data.”
Fauci said the U.S. death toll is probably higher than the 80,000 deaths officially reported, and added that the virus will not disappear in the fall or winter, contradicting President Trump’s claims last week that the virus would go away even without a vaccine.
“I feel about vaccines like I feel about tests: This is going to go away without a vaccine,” Trump said Friday, adding that there could be “flare-ups,” including in the fall, but that COVID-19 would go away regardless.
“That is just not going to happen,” Fauci said of the idea that the virus would disappear on its own. “It’s a highly transmissible virus. It is likely there will be virus somewhere on this planet that will likely get back to us.”
Fauci also agreed with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who said many experts have said that the death toll is higher than what’s been reported.
Fauci pointed to New York City, where he said the health-care system faced an extraordinary challenge during the peak of the outbreak, and people could have died at home of coronavirus without being officially counted.
Several administration officials, including Trump, have questioned whether the death toll is inflated.
Earlier, Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency is working to “bridge the gap” between now and when a vaccine might be available through therapeutics.
The focus, he said, is speeding development and review of antiviral and antibody drugs as well as convalescent plasma products.
Hahn said the agency has created an emergency program to conduct such reviews and is using “every available authority and flexibility that’s appropriate.”
On testing, he said that the agency has worked with more than 500 developers who have submitted or said they would submit applications for FDA authorization for COVID-19 tests — including some involving technologies never used before.
The agency also is cracking down on fraudulent tests and trying to provide more clarity to the public on which tests have been authorized by the FDA and which ones haven’t, he said.
Later, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, criticized the Trump administration’s news conference Monday heralding its increased testing capacity.
“I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever,” Romney told the health officials assembled at the hearing.
Trump and other administration officials Monday regularly pointed to the fact that the United States was conducting more testing per capita than South Korea, which has been widely praised for its early and aggressive testing efforts that helped stem its outbreak.
Romney said U.S. officials were ignoring the fact that South Korea had far higher testing capacity than the United States early in its outbreak, while the United States was “treading water in February.”
South Korea has had fewer than 300 COVID-19 deaths.
Romney also asked why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data-collection system was so outdated and the agency’s director what Congress needed to do to help modernize the system.
He also asked coronavirus task force member Anthony S. Fauci whether it was a “longshot” to hope for a vaccine that would be ready within a year or two.
“It’s definitely not a longshot,” Fauci replied. “It’s clearly much more likely than not that somewhere in that time frame, we will get a vaccine for the virus.”
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., the last senator in line to ask questions, sought assurances from all four witnesses that they don’t have a confrontational relationship with Trump — a notion that she said has been advanced by the news media and some of her colleagues.
“There is certainly not a confrontational relationship between me and the president,” Fauci said. “I give advice, opinion based on evidence-based scientific information. He hears that. He respects it. He gets opinions from a variety of other people, but in no way, in my experience over the last several months, has there been any confrontational relationship between us.”
Redfield, Hahn and Giroir all gave similar answers.
“We have a very productive working relationship with each other,” Giroir said.