Fauci, other health officials urge masks, social distancing in congressional testimony

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WASHINGTON – Anthony Fauci and other Trump administration health officials warned that coronavirus activity could continue for some time and urged continuing social distancing and other precautions as they testified in a high-profile congressional hearing Tuesday at a key juncture in the country’s response to the pandemic.

With cases rising in nearly half the states and a White House eager to return to normal, Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, and three other key officials are appearing before a House panel overseeing the administration’s response. All four attended in person, instead of remotely.

The testimony is Fauci’s first since a highly anticipated appearance a month ago, and it comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s comments at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday that he had asked officials to slow testing to show fewer cases. Fauci and other witnesses said they had not received such a directive.

Fauci was joined before the House Energy and Commerce Committee by Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration; and Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health.

In his opening statement, Fauci told members of Congress that he was “cautiously optimistic” that an effective vaccine will be available to the American public by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

The government is providing extensive financial support to 14 vaccine candidates.

“Although you can never guarantee at all the safety and efficacy of a vaccine until you test in the field, we feel cautiously optimistic based on the concerted effort and the fact that we are taking financial risks to be able to be ahead of the game so that when . . . we get favorable candidates with good results, we will be able to make them available to the American public” within a year of when officials began researching a vaccine in mid-January, Fauci said.

Hahn said his agency intends to use “appropriate flexibility” in employing regulatory tools to provide guidance to researchers and companies working on vaccines and drugs for covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But he said “data and science will dictate” when the FDA approves safe and effective products to prevent and treat the disease.

Hahn also said the agency has launched a “comprehensive” review of all its responses to date involving the coronavirus. The goal, he said, is to keep “what is working well” and to adjust policies that are not producing the desired result.

The FDA has been criticized for initially being slow to clear diagnostic tests for covid-19 from academic laboratories and then being too lenient on antibody tests. The agency has since adjusted both policies.

In the hearing, all four health officials said they had never been instructed to slow down testing for the coronavirus.

When asked by Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the committee’s top Republican, whether Trump had ever instructed any of them to slow down testing – as Trump claimed during his rally in Tulsa on Saturday – Fauci, Hahn, Redfield and Giroir said no.

“None of us have ever been told to slow down on testing. . . . In fact, we will be doing more testing,” Fauci said.

White House officials have said Trump was joking during the rally. But Trump on Tuesday said, “I don’t kid,” when a reporter asked him whether he was joking.

In his testimony, Fauci said states were seeing a “disturbing surge” of new coronavirus infections. The next couple of weeks “are going to be critical in our ability to address those surges,” he said.

Contrary to statements from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence that the recent increase in infections was largely due to an increase in testing, Fauci said the surges in more than a dozen states were largely attributable to an increase in community transmission.

“A couple of days ago, there were 30,000 new infections. That’s very disturbing to me,” Fauci said.

Texas on Tuesday reported more than 5,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases, an all-time high and a milestone that comes as the federal government has stopped supporting some testing sites in the state.

Asked by Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., about the decision, Giroir, assistant secretary for health, confirmed that the Trump administration has “sunsetted” 13 testing sites, seven of which are in Texas. The move was done “with the full agreement of the governors,” he said.

“We’re not withdrawing the support for well-over 2,000 sites,” Giroir said. “We’re just transitioning those 13.”

Democrats in Texas are blaming the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, for the recent spike.

“The record-breaking number of COVID-19 cases today and the fact that Texas has seen 12-straight days of record hospitalizations is because of Greg Abbott’s failure to lead,” Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman said in a statement.

Fauci also told lawmakers that he had never seen a single virus that produced such a wide range of symptoms and disease severity in its victims. Some people infected with covid-19 have no symptoms, Fauci said, while others have mild symptoms, and still others require weeks in a hospital on a ventilator or die of the virus.

Fauci urged young people who might be tempted to resume their normal lives because they believe it’s unlikely they will get seriously ill from the virus to consider the impact they could have on the outbreak across the country.

“What you can’t forget is if you get infected and spread the infection, even though you do not get sick, you are part of the process of the dynamics of an outbreak,” Fauci said. “What you might be propagating, perhaps innocently, is you infect someone, who infects someone, who then infects someone who is vulnerable.”

Fauci said in response to a question from Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., that he believes institutional racism has contributed to the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on African Americans.

“Well, I mean, obviously the African American community has suffered from racism for a very, very long period of time,” Fauci told Rush, who was appearing remotely. “And I cannot imagine that that has not contributed to the conditions that they find themselves in economically and otherwise. So the answer, congressman, is yes.”

Data has shown that minorities account for a disproportionate number of cases and deaths from the virus. The CDC has said that more widespread underlying medical conditions and a greater number of racial minorities living in densely populated areas contribute to the phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Fauci also said he has not directed the president to wear a mask. Trump has been notoriously resistant to wearing a face mask in public, and Fauci acknowledged Tuesday that he has not personally advised the president to wear one – even though federal guidelines state that wearing a face covering can help slow the pandemic’s spread.

“I have not directly recommended to the president to wear a mask, but I think it’s very clear to anybody in the country – because I talk about it so often – of the importance of having physical distance with a mask,” Fauci said in response to a question from Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. “And if you are going to be – either beyond your control, or by your own choice – in a crowd, that it is imperative to wear a mask at all times.”

Asked what he thinks about Trump’s decision not to wear a mask, Fauci declined to say.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., asked Fauci about the Trump administration’s belated guidance to Americans to wear face coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In late March, McKinley noted, the administration was advising the public that there was still no consensus on whether masks were effective.

“Do you now regret not advising people more forcefully to wear masks earlier?” McKinley asked.

Fauci did not appear to be pleased with the question.

“OK, we’re going to play that game,” he said. “Let me explain to you what happened back then.”

After McKinley told him that only a simple “yes” or “no” was required, Fauci shot back, “No, there’s more than a yes or no, by the tone of your question. I don’t regret that, because let me explain to you what happened.”

He continued: “At that time, there was a paucity of equipment that our health-care providers needed. . . . We did not want to divert masks and PPE [personal protective equipment] away from them to be used by the people. Now that we have enough, we recommend” wearing masks.

Calling the pandemic the “greatest public health crisis” that the United States has faced in more than a century, Redfield urged Americans to continue social distancing, hand-washing and use face coverings to prevent and control the spread of the coronavirus, calling them the “most powerful weapons” health officials have.

He said the rise in the number of cases in many states is driven by several factors, including increased community transmission.

His comments undercut what the president has said, that the increase in cases is the result of increased testing.

In preparing for the possibility of covid-19 and influenza hitting at the same time this fall, Redfield also urged Americans to embrace flu vaccinations.

“This single act will save lives,” he said.

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