WASHINGTON – Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top member of the White House coronavirus task force, plans to warn a panel of Senators on Tuesday about the danger of new COVID-19 outbreaks if states start to reopen their economies too quickly amid the pandemic.
In a hearing, which senators are forced to hold by videoconference rather than in person because of newly discovered cases within the White House, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, plans to stress "the danger of trying to open the country prematurely."
"If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to 'Open America Again,' then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country. This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal," Fauci said in an email to The New York Times that outlined what he planned to say at the hearing.
That grim warning contrasts with President Donald Trump's enthusiastic calls for states to reopen, despite the risks.
Trump tweeted Monday that "the great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails. The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes."
A member of the committee, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., tweeted Monday that it’s “time to safely reopen and start rebuilding the economy!"
The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing titled, "safely getting back to work and back to school," could be contentious, as Republicans have tended to back Trump's call to reopen the economy faster while Democrats have argued for more testing and contact tracing first.
Two of the four government witnesses have changed from what the committee announced in scheduling the hearing. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for health, has been scheduled to join Fauci and Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. But they were replaced Tuesday by Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director for CDC, and Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for preparedness and response.
In a joint statement, Schuchat, Fauci, Kadlec and Hahn said the government has taken unprecedented steps to prevent the spread of the virus and to protect Americans. The 25-page statement gave updates on the development of treatments and vaccines against the virus, although none have been approved yet by the FDA.
The hearing comes after the White House announced last week that a valet to Trump and an aide to Vice President Mike Pence both tested positive for the virus.
Three top health officials who serve on Pence’s task force – Fauci, Redfield and Hahn – are each isolating themselves after coming into contact with someone who tested positive.
And the committee chairman, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, announced Sunday he wouldn’t return to Washington from Tennessee for the hearing as he isolates himself for two weeks because one of his staffers tested positive.
The hearing will explore the balance that state and federal officials must strike between the health of citizens and the economy.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University who won’t be testifying at the hearing, said the keys to reopening society are to adapt to new behaviors to prevent the spread of disease, such as wearing masks, keeping six feet apart and washing hands regularly. Testing and tracing the contacts of infected people are also important to corral the virus, he said.
"The virus knows no bounds. The Secret Service couldn’t keep the virus out of the White House," Schaffner said. "There are going to be some illnesses. The trick is to keep that at the lowest possible levels."
Pamela Aaltonen, a former president of the American Public Health Association and professor emerita at Purdue University who isn't testifying at the hearing, said the country would be well-served by a comprehensive, science-based set of national standards that could be modified for different areas of the country. For example, the rules could be different between grade schools and colleges.
"The race to reopen has resulted in much of this work not being done or if done, not communicated," she said. "Of course, challenging because still learning about this virus and how to inactivate it."
The decisions will be based on hospitalization rates, death rates, infection rates – and where there are shortages of emergency supplies. The reasons for reopening and the risks must all be explained or the decisions might not be sustainable, Aaltonen said.
"Plans that vary wildly among states, regions, cities may suggest to the public that there is no strong rationale for actions," she said.
But the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, joined 40 Senate Democrats in a letter urging Trump to develop a national strategy by May 24 for reliably and consistently testing patients nationwide.
Alexander said testing has been “very impressive,” with more than 8 million completed in the U.S., which is more than any other country and more for its population than most countries. But he said faster testing will be needed for schools to reopen in the fall.
“Well, what we have done is very impressive,” Alexander told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “It's enough to do what we need to do today to reopen but it's not enough, for example, when 35,000 kids and faculty show up on the University of Tennessee campus in August.”
The hearing of federal officials will provide guidance to state-level officials who will determine how and when to reopen. For example, the CDC has recommended limiting gatherings 10 people, to curb the spread of disease. But state governors began issuing orders in mid-March to close businesses, and now governors are beginning to ease those restrictions.
Pence visited Iowa Friday, after Gov. Kim Reynolds allowed the resumption of dental services last week, while keeping restrictions on other businesses. She plans to announce Tuesday more changes scheduled for Friday.
But Reynolds had visited the White House on Wednesday and has been under a modified isolation like Fauci as a precaution. She is getting tested daily, has her temperature taken repeatedly and wears a mask when interacting with staffers.
Reynolds told reporters Monday that even as restrictions are lifted, the most vulnerable people who are at least 65 years old or who have chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure will need to continue staying home and minimizing travel when possible.
“We could never guarantee that Iowans wouldn’t get it,” Reynolds said. “I believe that we can and will be able to contain and manage the virus, and balance the health of Iowans with the health of our economy.”
Lawmakers are expected to challenge the witnesses about how and when it will be safe for states to reopen, after Trump disputed earlier claims by Fauci and Redfield.
Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing March 12 that the lack of testing has been a failing.
“It’s a failing. Let’s admit it,” Fauci said. “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it is – we are not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes, but we are not.”
At a Rose Garden news conference the next day, Trump denied he was responsible for the lag in testing.
“I don’t take responsibility at all because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time,” Trump said. “It wasn’t meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign tweeted out Trump’s reply two days later, saying Trump should have taken responsibility.
Trump has also argued that Redfield was misquoted last month in an interview with the Washington Post that was then covered by CNN.
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” Redfield told the Post. “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time."
Redfield acknowledged at a White House news conference that the story quoted him accurately.