There’s no end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top government health experts told Congress on Friday.
“While it remains unclear how long the pandemic will last, COVID-19 activity will likely continue for some time,” Fauci, along with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Dr. Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir said in prepared testimony for a special House panel investigating the pandemic.
At a time when early progress seems to have been lost and uncertainty clouds the nation’s path forward, Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, is calling on lawmakers — and all other Americans — to go back to public health basics such as social distancing and wearing masks.
During Friday's hearing, Fauci was asked why Europe appeared to be handling the crisis better than the United States. He explained that the U.S. lockdown wasn't as restrictive and that the country reopened too quickly.
"We really only functionally shut down about 50 percent in terms of the totality of the country," Fauci said. He added that while Europe dropped down to just a few thousand new cases a day, the U.S. bottomed out at 20,000 new cases a day, which created a difficult baseline with which to work.
Fauci also faced a series of questions from Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, regarding the spread of the virus and ongoing protests against systemic racism. Jordan asked Fauci directly if "protests should be shut down," the way some churches and businesses were earlier this year.
Fauci responded by saying that people should be avoiding crowds, no matter the situation.
"It's not a judgment, it's a public health statement," he said.
Fauci also gave encouraging comments regarding the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. He reiterated his hopes that a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year, and said that about 250,000 people had signed up to participate in vaccine trials.
The panel, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, remains divided about how to reopen schools and businesses, mirroring divisions among Americans.
A rebound of cases across the South and the West has dashed hopes for a quick return to normal life. Problems with the availability and timeliness of testing continue to be reported. And the race for a vaccine, though progressing rapidly, has yet to deliver a breakthrough.
Fauci’s public message in recent days has been that Americans can’t afford a devil-may-care attitude toward COVID-19 and need to double down on basic measures such as wearing masks in public, keeping their distance from others and avoiding crowds and indoor spaces such as bars. That’s echoed by Redfield and Giroir, though they are far less prominent.
Fauci’s dogged persistence has drawn the ire of some of President Donald Trump’s supporters and prompted a new round of calls for his firing. But the veteran of battles against AIDS and Ebola has stuck to his message, while carefully avoiding open confrontations with the Trump White House.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Fauci said he was “disturbed” by the flat-out opposition in parts of the country to wearing masks as a public health protective measure.
“There are certain fundamentals,” he said, “the staples of what you need to do ... one is universal wearing of masks.”
Public health experts say masks help prevent an infected person who has yet to develop symptoms from passing the virus to others. For mask wearers, there’s also some evidence that they can offer a degree of protection from an infected person nearby.
Fauci said in his AP interview that he’s concerned because the U.S. has not followed the track of Asian and European nations also hit hard by the coronavirus.
Other countries that shut down their economies knocked back uncontrolled spread and settled into a pattern of relatively few new cases, although they continued to experience local outbreaks.
The U.S. also knocked back the initial spread, but it never got the background level of new cases quite as low. And the resurgence of COVID-19 in the Sunbelt in recent weeks has driven the number of new daily cases back up into the 60,000-70,000 range. It coincided with economic reopening and a return to social gatherings, particularly among younger adults. Growing numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths have followed as grim consequences.
Nearly 4.5 million Americans have been been infected since the start of the pandemic, and more than 150,000 have died, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Fauci said there’s evidence the surge across the South may be peaking, but upticks in the Midwest are now a concern.
“They’ve really got to jump all over that because if they don’t then you might see the surge we saw in some of the Southern states,” he told the AP.
Though Fauci gets push-back from White House officials, other medical experts in the administration are on the same page when it comes to the public health message.
Giroir, the testing czar, told reporters Thursday: “I think it’s very important to make sure that we all spread the public health message that we can control all the outbreaks occurring right now.”
He said controlling the outbreaks will require people to wear masks, avoid crowded indoor spaces and wash their hands frequently.