Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, warned Tuesday of unnecessary “suffering and death” if states open their economies too early during the COVID-19 pandemic, striking a more cautious tone than President Trump, who has prodded some states to loosen lockdowns and cheered on protesters and complaining businesses.
“My concern is that we will start to see little spikes that then turn into outbreaks,” Dr. Fauci told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “The consequences could be really serious.”
Ten states are reopening, or about to do so, even though they have not met a key White House benchmark for loosening restrictions: a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates, according to an Associated Press analysis. They are Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.
Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said states that disregard federal prescriptions on lifting societal restrictions could, paradoxically, impair their own goals if they need to go back into shutdown mode.
“There is a real risk you’ll trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which, in fact, 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,” he said. “It would almost turn the clock back rather than going forward.”
Dr. Fauci said the U.S. death toll is likely higher than what has been reported and that it would be “a bridge too far” to bank on drug treatments or a vaccine by the time the next academic year begins. He said Americans should look to expanded testing to keep students safe.
The scientist testified about the dangers of being hasty even as Mr. Trump paints an optimistic portrait of and goads blue states to reopen their economies despite a lack of specific guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW. It can be done Fast & Safely!” Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday, wading into a fight between the automaker and local regulators.
Dr. Fauci and other top officials testified that the president listens to their advice and that their relationship is not “confrontational.”
Though the administration has largely deferred to governors on plans to reopen, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Mr. Trump wants states to follow federal guidelines that recommend a phased-in approach.
She said, however, that some people are delaying needed medical care or potential cancer diagnoses because of shutdowns.
The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December before it swept the globe. It has infected over 1.3 million people in the U.S. and killed nearly 81,000.
“Most of us feel the number of deaths is likely higher than that number,” said Dr. Fauci, responding to questions from Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
Dr. Fauci cited the rush of cases in New York City, where people likely died at home and weren’t included in the COVID-19 numbers.
He said the virus won’t simply disappear so preparations for a potential second wave this fall will be vital.
The doctor testified remotely along with Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn, CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield and Adm. Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar.”
Dr. Fauci, Dr. Hahn and Dr. Redfield are all in some level of self-quarantine after a staffer for Vice President Mike Pence tested positive for coronavirus infection last week. All three said they are considered critical workers and will attend meetings at the White House complex as needed as long as they are asymptomatic, screened and monitored for fever and other symptoms.
Testing for COVID-19 is viewed as a critical piece in helping states identify cases and isolate infections in order to slow transmission of the disease.
Virtually all states, even particularly hard-hit spots such as New York and Massachusetts, are moving toward relaxing some of their restrictions.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, is cheering a competition at the National Institutes of Health to generate testing technologies to check millions of Americans before they head back to their work sites or campuses in the coming months.
“All roads back to work and back to school run through testing,” he said. “What our country has done so far on testing is impressive but not nearly enough.”
Adm. Giroir said his goal is to conduct 40 million to 50 million tests per month by September.
Mr. Trump is hailing the U.S. as a world leader in testing after complaints that the administration was slow to set up its disease surveillance system.
Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, scolded Adm. Giroir for comparing the U.S. testing rate favorably with South Korea’s on Monday. He said South Korea was more aggressive early on and kept its death count low.
“They accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak while we treaded water during February and March,” the senator said. “They have 256 deaths, and we have almost 80,000 deaths. I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever. The fact is their test numbers are going down, down, down, down now because they don’t have the kind of outbreaks we have. Ours are going up, up, up because they have to.”
Ms. McEnany reiterated the comparison at her briefing. She said every state is now conducting more per capita testing than South Korea.
“Every state is better off than South Korea at this moment, and that is a very good thing and something to be celebrated,” she said.
On Capitol Hill, senators pressed Dr. Redfield to release specific guidelines for businesses and institutions that want to reopen safety.
“When are we going to get this expertise from the federal government?” asked Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat.
Dr. Redfield said the guidance will be posted “soon.” Mr. Murphy said that timeline was unhelpful.
Mr. Alexander urged senators at the start of the hearing to refrain from finger-pointing. He said almost all countries underestimated the coronavirus, including its rate of contagion and dangers to vulnerable people, such as the elderly.
But Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said the president is guilty of early missteps and ignoring health experts. She said Mr. Trump has been more focused on “fighting against the truth than fighting this virus.”
Mrs. Murray said the federal government needs to “step up” and provide supplies and personnel to states trying to reopen. She also called on Congress to provide more stimulus relief.
“What good is a bridge that only gets you to the middle of the river?” she said. “We don’t need to wait around to see if people need more help. We know they do.”