White House coronavirus task force medical expert Anthony S. Fauci — without the president over his shoulder to contradict him — on Tuesday warned about states reopening too early.
"If some areas, cities, states or what have you, jump over those various checkpoints [like a guideline for a 14-day decrease in COVID-19 cases], and prematurely open up ... my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks. ... The consequences could be really serious."
Fauci said any state's push to reopen "is understandable — to get back to some form of normality." But resulting outbreaks may be hard to control.
"Which in fact, paradoxically, will set you [cities and states] back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery — as you can almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward. That is my major concern," Fauci said.
The nation's top infectious disease expert was answering one of many questions from 23 members of Sen. Lamar Alexander's Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in a hearing titled "COVID-19: Safely getting back to work and back to school."
Alexander asked Fauci what he would say to the University of Tennessee chancellor about opening for the fall term. The doctor, who has advised six presidents, said "Well, I would be very realistic with the chancellor and tell ... her that in this case the idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far."
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, clarified later, at Alexander's urging, that he didn't necessarily mean schools couldn't reopen, but their schedules should depend on the situation that unfolds over the summer and whether adequate precautions had been previously taken. In other words, had our cities and states followed guidelines and done all they could do to keep the spread of the highly contagious and dangerous virus down, or had they reopened too soon.
Tennessee and Georgia — in fact most Southern states — are forging full-speed ahead to reopen, despite continually climbing cases of COVID-19. Gov. Bill Lee dropped Tennessee's safe-at-home order in early May, and despite Lee's "trust" that Tennesseans would practice social distancing, Hamilton County residents are back out in public and congregating as much as they did on March 13 — the day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and the day the county's first COVID-19 case was confirmed. We know this thanks to data from the tech firm Unacast, which tracks anonymous cell phone usage in 50 states and compares the activity — county by county — to its same level before COVID-19. Hamilton County Wednesday afternoon tallied 286 cases and 13 deaths. Nationally, too, the number of cases — and deaths — continue to grow. To date, the U.S. has seen nearly 1.4 million cases and more than 83,000 deaths.
The setting of Tuesday's congressional hearing reflected Washington's growing concern — except President Trump, who announced the day before that the virus is behind us.
Only a handful of the committee's members sat in person in the Capitol hearing room — and most wore masks when it wasn't their turn to question Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and President Trump's coronavirus testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir. The rest of the committee members participated by teleconference because they chose to stay safe from the virus in their homes of offices.
What's more, Alexander himself, as well as the health experts, were participating via teleconference because they were self isolating or self quarantining after possibly being exposed to White House workers (or a Senate staffer in Alexander's case) who tested positive for COVID-19.
Like Fauci, Redfield contradicted President Trump's insistence that the nation has put the virus in its rear-view mirror. Redfield said the U.S. still lacks critical testing capacity and the ability to trace the contacts of those infected.
"We lost the containment edge," he conceded.
(Tennessee has been among the more aggressive of states about testing, though Hamilton County lagged behind the rest of the state until recently. Only Tuesday did Hamilton County obtain a half-million dollar federal grant to expand testing here. The money, announced by state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, will be awarded to the Hamilton County Health Department and the Chattanooga Hamilton County Hospital Authority, which oversees Erlanger.)
The senators, even the Republicans, generally were respectful but tough on the health experts.
Alexander said twice that the ramp-up of testing in recent weeks was impressive, "but not nearly enough."
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, pressed Redfield on when we might see the past-due guidelines for reopening that have been held up by the White House. "Soon" was the best answer Redfield could give him.
"'Soon' isn't terribly helpful," Murphy responded.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called the testing in the United States "nothing to celebrate whatsoever." He rebuked Giroir and the White House for favorably comparing U.S. testing to that of South Korea, which ramped up testing much more quickly and has dealt with a much smaller outbreak and far fewer deaths as a result.
"Yesterday, you celebrated that we had done more tests and more tests per capita even than South Korea," Romney said to Giroir. "But you ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak while we treaded water during February and March."
Alexander is to be commended for holding the hearing under tough circumstances. On Wednesday, he put the most optimistic face on things that he could, writing: "If you're thinking about going back to school in August, based upon what you heard at the hearing yesterday, you should feel better, because according to Admiral Giroir, there should be 40 to 50 million tests available, which means you might test everyone at a school or everyone on a college campus and then isolate anyone who might be sick. That would help everybody else feel better about being safe."
We hope he's right.