WASHINGTON – The recent surge in coronavirus infections has been caused both by some areas reopening too quickly and by people not following guidelines, Dr. Anthony Fauci told lawmakers Tuesday.
"We've got to get that message out that we are all in this together," Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "And if we are going to contain this, we've got to contain it together."
Testifying weeks after he’d previously warned of needless "suffering and death" if appropriate steps weren’t taken, Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health, said he’s "quite concerned" about what’s happening in many states.
Asked what’s going wrong, he said several states may have gone "too quickly" and skipped over some of the checkpoints laid out for a safe reopening.
But even in areas where state and local officials followed the federal guidelines, individuals acted as if all restrictions had been lifted.
"What we saw were a lot of people who maybe felt that because they think they are invulnerable, and we know many young people are not because they're getting serious disease, that therefore they're getting infected has nothing at all to do with anyone else, when in fact it does," Fauci said.
New cases have been increasing by abut 40,000 a day, he said, adding that could rise to 100,000 a day without changes.
"We’ve really got to do something about that and we need to deal with it quickly," he said. "It could get very bad."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., opened the hearing on the state of the coronavirus pandemic by re-upping his past recommendation that President Donald Trump wear a mask to reduce the political divide on that health recommendation.
"The president has plenty of admirers," Alexander said. "They would follow his lead."
Health officials have been emphasizing the need for mask wearing as states loosen their social distancing restrictions and as infections have surged in many areas.
In particular, Fauci said, close gatherings in bars is "really not good."
"We’ve really got to stop that," he said.
The European Union has deemed Americans too risky to welcome in when the bloc opens up to international visitors July 1.
European countries have better contained the virus, Fauci said, in part because the shutdown of activities there was more widespread. In the United States, only about half the nation shut down compared with about 90% to 95% of activities in many European countries.
"We’re a very heterogeneous country," he said, "and we had a heterogeneous response."
Fauciand the other witnesses entered the hearing room wearing masks. They were spaced six feet apart. The number of reporters let into the room was limited and there was no room for a general audience.
Alexander noted that the Capitol Hill physician said masks could be taken off when talking into the microphone if the speaker was sitting six feet away from others, as he was doing.
"That’s why my mask is off right now," he said. "But like many other senators, when I’m walking the hallways or on the Senate floor, I’m wearing a mask."
Alexander lamented that "this simple life-saving practice has become part of the political debate that says this, 'If you're for Trump you don't wear a mask. If you're against Trump, you do.’"
"That's why I've suggested that the president, occasionally wear a mask, even though in most cases, it's not necessary for him to do so," he said.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, tore into Trump in her opening comments.
"We’ve seen a leadership crisis raging in the White House as the president proves time after time he cares less about how this pandemic is impacting families and communities and more about how it makes him look," she said.
The hearing is being held two days after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar warned that the "window is closing" for the United States to get the situation under control.
Fauci has repeatedly urged states to follow federal guidelines for reopening, including in his last appearance before the Senate health committee when he warned in May that failure to do so would lead to "some suffering and death" that could be avoided.
Today, half the country is struggling to manage rising COVID-19 cases.
A number of states paused their reopening plans last week as the U.S. set records for the number of new cases in one day. Texas closed bars and limited restaurant capacity, while Florida banned drinking at bars.
Experts say states that don’t manage their case counts risk overwhelming the health care system again and infecting neighboring states that have already flattened the curve.
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Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci arrives for a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2020.
The White House has often presented a rosier picture of the situation than what health officials describe.
Asked Monday about Azar's warning, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president is encouraged that there's been a decline in fatality rates and an increase in effective treatments.
"These things make us uniquely equipped to handle the increase in cases that we’ve seen," McEnany said.
The more than 125,000 deaths in the United States from COVID-19 represent approximately 25% of the world's fatalities.
Some experts predict the U.S. death toll to hit nearly 180,000 by Oct. 1.
Testifying before a House panel last week, Fauci said these two weeks are "critical" in how the country addresses the surge in states like Florida, Texas and Arizona.
He attributed the "disturbing surge of infections" to a combination of factors, including an increase in person-to-person transmission, or community spread.
As he was at last week's hearing, Fauci will be joined Tuesday by Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention; Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health for Health and Human Services.