Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease doctor, told a House panel on Tuesday that rising U.S. cases of COVID-19 are “disturbing” as new signs emerged of the United States falling further behind other countries in containing the novel coronavirus.
The coronavirus is surging in more than half the country, and states like Florida, Texas and Arizona are setting records of new cases almost daily.
Yet states are continuing to push forward with reopening businesses and lifting restrictions, and Fauci warned that without the ability to fully identify, isolate and trace the contacts of the infected individuals, the situation could worsen.
Governors in states that were the most aggressive in reopening have finally acknowledged the potentially dire nature of the rising virus cases in recent days but have not indicated they will re-impose any restrictions, or even pause the reopening push.
Fauci said time is running out to address the spikes in cases.
“Right now, the next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address those surgings that we’re seeing in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona and in other states,” Fauci told the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday.
The hearing marked a rare opportunity for House Democrats to grill administration officials about their response to the coronavirus pandemic. It was the first time members of the White House coronavirus task force appeared before Congress in over a month. The White House has also ended public briefings by officials from the group.
Oversight efforts by Congress have separately been stymied by the White House’s policy that senior officials are not allowed to testify without permission from chief of staff Mark Meadows.
The testimony from Fauci and other top administration health officials contrasted with the rosy and sometimes dismissive rhetoric from President Trump, Vice President Pence and other administration officials, who are eager to declare victory over the virus.
Experts fear Trump’s dismissal of rising case numbers and his resistance to wearing a face mask gives the public the message that the virus is no longer a threat and puts the country at risk of prolonging the crisis.
Trump has drastically scaled back the work of the task force and has encouraged states to reopen as quickly as possible, even as most don’t meet the administration’s own guidelines.
During a Fox News interview last week, Trump told Sean Hannity that the virus will “fade away” even without a vaccine.
Both Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield rejected that idea and said the virus will continue well into the fall and winter.
Redfield warned that the outbreak will overlap with flu season in the fall, which “could place a tremendous burden on the health care system.”
The inability of the U.S. to contain the coronavirus outbreak is being felt internationally as well. As the European Union reopens its borders, the region is reportedly considering banning all U.S. travelers given the worsening COVID-19 situation in the United States.
Europe has largely contained its outbreak, and countries like Italy and Spain, which were previously epicenters of the virus, endured sustained lockdowns that were stricter than anywhere in the United States.
Fauci said the U.S. response has been a “mixed bag.”
There are now about 30,000 new cases per day in the United States. The number of new cases had leveled off at about 20,000 and stayed there for weeks before rising again this past weekend.
“In some respects, we’ve done very well,” Fauci said, specifically praising the way New York has contained the worst outbreak of the virus to date.
“However, in other areas of the country, we are now seeing a disturbing surge of infections that looks like it’s a combination, but one of the things is an increase in community spread. And that’s something I’m really quite concerned about,” Fauci said.
Officials continue to attribute the rise in cases to increased testing, pointing particularly to an increase in young people now testing positive. Deaths have also been decreasing in recent days, which Trump and others have pointed to as a sign of success.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed more than 120,000 Americans.
“Cases up only because of our big number testing. Mortality rate way down!!!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
Yet Fauci contradicted him almost in real time, saying it was too soon to draw conclusions about the death rate.
“Deaths always lag considerably behind cases,” Fauci said. “You’re seeing more cases now while the deaths are going down. The concern is if those cases infect people who wind up getting sick and going to the hospital, it is conceivable you may see the deaths going up.”
Fauci said that, to his knowledge, no administration officials had been told to slow testing, as Trump suggested at a campaign rally on Saturday.
The White House has sent conflicting messages on testing and on Trump’s remarks in recent days, insisting Monday that the president had been joking when he said more testing makes the country look bad by identifying more coronavirus cases.
“I don’t kid,” Trump said on Tuesday when asked whether he made the comments in jest.
Fauci said Trump’s comments do not reflect the administration’s actual actions.
“It’s the opposite,” Fauci said. “We’re going to be doing more testing, not less.”
Representative Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also sought to confirm that Trump had not actually ordered a slowdown in testing.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Brett Giroir, who is leading testing efforts, both said flatly that Trump had never ordered them to slow down testing.