WASHINGTON — A top Trump administration health official warned Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and other senators Tuesday that reopening the economy too quickly could cause suffering, death and an even longer economic set-back.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told lawmakers there could be 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, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
“We would almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward.”
His statements came at a highly anticipated hearing before the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee. He last testified before the panel March 3, before President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency.
The unprecedented hearing included remote testimony from Fauci and the other witnesses, including representatives from 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 at 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.
Casey wants ‘basic information’ about nursing home outbreaks
Casey, who participated by video, pressed the Trump administration to speed its work to track outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities and make the information publicly available. Outbreaks in those communities may be the source of 25% of all coronavirus deaths — both from residents and employees, Casey said.
Casey and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter last month to the CDC and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services asking them to publicly release the names of nursing homes that have cases of COVID-19. Administration officials agreed to the request, but Casey said the government has been too slow to put transparent reporting requirements in place.
“This is basic information that families and people in the community need about outbreaks in nursing homes,” Casey said.
Pennsylvania has had a total of 57,991 COVID-19 cases reported in 67 counties since March 6, according to a data analysis by the Capital-Star. The state reported 837 new cases May 12. On most days since mid-April, the number has fluctuated between 800 and 1,300 new cases each day.
On May 1, Pennsylvania started a partial reopening of businesses related to outdoor activities, including golf courses, marinas and campgrounds. Gyms, bars, dine-in restaurants, salons, barbershops and movie theaters are still closed. Certain counties with low infection rates can open other businesses to gatherings of no more than 25 people.
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 optimistic portrait Trump outlined in remarks at a White House briefing Monday.
Trump said the number of coronavirus cases were going down “almost everywhere,” even though many states, including Pennsylvania, 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 a White House briefing Monday, 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.”
Fauci ‘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 on any other 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 admitted “there is no guarantee that the vaccine is actually going to be effective,” but said he is “cautiously optimistic.”
The health experts at 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 current 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 to 30 million rapid-result tests should be available this summer. He predicted the nation will be capable of performing at least 40 to 50 million total 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, where a single test could potentially 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.”