Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, warned on Tuesday that “the consequences could be really serious” if cities and states reopen the U.S. economy too quickly.
More COVID-19 infections are inevitable as people again start gathering, but how prepared communities are to stamp out those sparks will determine how bad the rebound is, Fauci told the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee.
“There is no doubt, even under the best of circumstances, when you pull back on mitigation you will see some cases appear,” Fauci said.
And if there is a rush to reopen without following guidelines, “my concern is we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” he said. “The consequences could be really serious.”
Fauci was among the health experts testifying Tuesday to the Senate panel. His testimony comes as President Donald Trump is praising states that are reopening after the prolonged lockdown aimed at controlling the virus's spread.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, chairman of the committee, said as the hearing opened that “what our country has done so far in testing is impressive, but not nearly enough.”
Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force charged with shaping the response to COVID-19, which has killed tens of thousands of people in the U.S., was testifying via video conference after self-quarantining as a White House staffer tested positive for the virus.
Fauci also warned that while the federal government is working to help manufacture a vaccine against the new coronavirus, its development "might take some time" to come to market.
As a result, the nation's efforts to battle the deadline virus and the COVID-19 disease it triggers should be "focused on the proven public health practices of containment and mitigation."
In remarks to The New York Times before the hearing, Fauci warned that moving too quickly to ease restrictions on business and social life will put lives at risk from the coronavirus pandemic and hamper the economic recovery.
"All roads back to work and back to school run through testing and that what our country has done so far on testing is impressive, but not nearly enough," Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee, said in an opening statement to Tuesday's hearing.
Alexander is also self-quarantining in his home state of Tennessee for 14 days after a member of his staff tested positive. Alexander chaired the hearing virtually.
Republican President Donald Trump, who previously made the strength of the economy central to his pitch for his November re-election, has encouraged states to reopen businesses that had been deemed non-essential amid the pandemic.
His administration has largely left it to states to decide whether and how to reopen. State governors are taking varying approaches, with a growing number relaxing tough restrictions enacted to slow the outbreak, even as opinion polls show most Americans are concerned about reopening too soon.
Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer, told MSNBC on Monday: "Dr. Fauci will have the opportunity to testify for the first time with Donald Trump not lurking over his shoulder."
Schumer urged Fauci: "Tell us the truth. That's your obligation as an administration official and as an American." Fauci has taken part in White House task force briefings led by Trump, coordinating Washington's response to the coronavirus. Others testifying on Tuesday include U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn. Each will testify remotely.
Fauci, Redfield and Hahn have been taking self-quarantine steps after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, which causes the highly contagious respiratory disease COVID-19.
The shuttering of businesses to fight the spread of the coronavirus has led to mass layoffs of workers, sparking the greatest economic disruption to the United States since the Great Depression nearly a century ago.
But Trump and his task force have faced questions on how U.S. workers will be kept safe, especially after two White House aides tested positive for the virus.
So far, the coronavirus has killed more than 80,000 people in the United States, the highest death toll of any country. Some experts say testing for the virus in most parts of the country continues to fall short of what would be needed to safely reopen.
Senate Democrats, including Patty Murray, her party's senior member on the Senate health committee, called on Trump to allocate $25 billion in funding to ramp up testing.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to unveil a sweeping coronavirus-response bill, possibly this week, that would likely provide more money for testing, new state and local government aid and another round of direct payments to help people meet daily living costs.
Congress has already passed trillions of dollars in emergency relief. Senate Republicans, some of whom have expressed doubts about the need for more federal aid, were due to meet with Trump at the White House on Tuesday.
This report contains material from The Associated Press and Reuters.
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