Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday said the young people fueling COVID-19 spikes in the Sun Belt shouldn’t “throw caution to the wind,” as President Trump gathered a crowd of thousands of students for a conservative pep talk in hard-hit Arizona.
Dr. Fauci, who leads infectious disease research at the National Institutes of Health, said he realizes that young people want to go out after months of lockdowns, but he warned that they would be roving dangers if they get too lax with social distancing.
With the coronavirus raging in parts of the country, the European Union is considering an extension of a travel ban on the U.S. when it opens up to other nations July 1.
“You should care — not only for yourself, but for the impact you might have on the dynamics of the outbreak,” Dr. Fauci told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“They may be indirectly hurting people by infecting someone, who then infects someone [else] who then infects someone who is vulnerable,” the doctor said. “They need to understand that.”
The testimony set up a jarring split screen with Mr. Trump, who spoke to a Phoenix megachurch full of conservative students who sat close together instead of 6 feet apart. Few in the audience wore masks.
Mr. Trump mused about names for COVID-19, such as the “kung flu” — which some view as racist — and mainly cast the pandemic in economic terms.
“Before the plague came over, we were doing the greatest, we had the greatest economy we ever had,” Mr. Trump told the crowd, saying the country’s financial fortunes will rebound in the third quarter.
His opponents, he said, “are trying to do their best to keep the country shut down and closed.”
He said later that the U.S. was doing well before the coronavirus hit and “we’re doing so well after the plague, it’s going away.”
Arizona is among states across the South and West with major flare-ups of COVID-19 cases as they reopen. The nationwide picture is improving because of significant progress in former epicenters in the Northeast.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said Mr. Trump’s decision to rally with students in the state is “reckless and irresponsible.”
“Mr. President, this disease is rearing its head in Arizona again and families are hurting,” he said. “Arizonans deserve a president who will rise to the moment amid the challenges we face today.”
The state is reporting 2,000 to 3,500 new cases per day compared with the low hundreds in April and May. Roughly 20% of tests in Arizona are coming back positive, suggesting the rising case count is the result of widespread transmission, not just an increase in the number of tests.
Mr. Trump says testing is a double-edged sword because large numbers of cases in the U.S. are posted on global tracking sites.
His aides said he was joking when he made that comment at his rally Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, though the president fanned the flames Tuesday by saying, “I don’t kid,” when asked whether he was kidding about the slowdown.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany later said the president has “made it abundantly clear that he appreciates testing, that we have tested more Americans than any other country has tested in their respective countries in the world.”
“But what he was making was a serious point, and that’s why he said, ‘I don’t kid,’” she said.
In Phoenix, Mr. Trump boasted about his push to manufacture ventilators and enact legislation that helps people weather the pandemic financially. He said testing is important but complained it boomerangs back on him and that he doesn’t get credit for expanding U.S. capacity.
“They use it to make us look bad,” Mr. Trump said.
Dr. Fauci and members of the White House coronavirus task force testified that Mr. Trump never ordered them to slow down testing.
“None of us have ever been told to slow down on testing. That just is a fact,” Dr. Fauci told lawmakers. “It’s the opposite; we’re going to be doing more testing, not less.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Brett Giroir, the country’s testing “czar,” also denied any slowdown order. They said testing remains important.
“The only way that we will be able to understand who has the disease, who is infected and can pass it, to do appropriate contact tracing is to test appropriately, smartly and as many people as we can,” said Adm. Giroir, an assistant health secretary and four-star admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service.
The U.S. is home to about 330 million people. It has conducted more than 25 million tests and discovered over 2.3 million infections. More than 120,000 people in the U.S. have died from the disease known as COVID-19.
Draft lists viewed by The New York Times suggested that European Union officials are prepared to bar American travelers beyond July 1, lumping in the U.S. with countries such as Brazil and Russia, which have also struggled to contain the virus. All but “essential” U.S. travelers have been barred from the European Union since mid-March.
In Washington, Dr. Fauci said he is still “cautiously optimistic” that developers can land a vaccine by the end of this year or the beginning of next year, allowing life to get fully back to normal.
“It is generally vaccines that put the nail in the coffin [of diseases],” Dr. Fauci said.
For now, the U.S. is looking at a “mixed bag” in fighting the pandemic.
“It’s a serious situation. In some respects, we’ve done very well,” said Dr. Fauci, citing improvements in hard-hit New York City. “Right now, the next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address those surges we are seeing in Florida, Texas, Arizona and other states.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, recently said the median age of those testing positive for COVID-19 has plunged from 65 in March to 37 in June.
Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, asked Dr. Fauci whether people should link the declining death rate in the U.S. to the decline in the median age.
The doctor said it’s difficult to say because deaths don’t show up in data until weeks after cases are detected.
“I think it’s too early to make that kind of link,” Dr. Fauci said. “Deaths always lag considerably behind cases.”
“The concern,” he said, “is if those cases infect people who wind up getting sick and go to the hospital, it is conceivable you may see the deaths going up.”