By: Lauran Neergaard & Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned bluntly Tuesday of “really serious” consequences of suffering, death and deeper economic damage if state and local officials lift stay-at-home orders too quickly, even as President Donald Trump pushes them to act to right a free-falling economy.
Fauci’s testimony before a Senate committee came as more than two dozen states have begun to lift their lockdowns as a first step toward economic recovery.
Underscoring the seriousness of the pandemic that has reached Congress and the White House, Fauci and other experts testified by video from their homes. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chaired the hearing by video from the study in his cabin in Tennessee, though several members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee did attend at the Capitol.
Fauci and other health officials stressed that pandemic danger persists, even as testing increases and work toward a vaccine and treatments continues.
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 senators.
“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.”
In fact, he said opening too soon “could turn the clock back,” and that not only would cause “some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”
Fauci was among the health experts testifying Tuesday to the Senate panel, as Trump has been praising states that are reopening after the prolonged lockdown aimed at controlling the virus’s spread.
Committee chairman Alexander said as the hearing opened that “what our country has done so far in testing is impressive, but not nearly enough.”
Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 4.2 million people and killed over 287,000 — more than 80,000 in U.S. alone. Asked if the U.S. mortality count was correct, Fauci said, “the number is likely higher. I don’t know exactly what percent higher but almost certainly it’s higher.”
Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force charged with shaping the response to COVID-19, testified via video conference after self-quarantining as a White House staffer tested positive for the virus.
With the U.S. economy in free-fall and more than 30 million people unemployed, Trump has been anxious to reopen states for business.
A recent Associated Press review determined that 17 states did not meet a key White House benchmark for loosening restrictions — a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates. Yet many of those have begun to reopen or are about to do so, including Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.
Of the 33 states that have had a 14-day downward trajectory of either cases or positive test rates, 25 are partially opened or moving to reopen within days, the AP analysis found. Other states that have not seen a 14-day decline, remain closed despite meeting some benchmarks.
Besides Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, the other experts include FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — both in self-quarantine—and Adm. Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar” at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The event Tuesday got underway in the committee’s storied hearing room, but that’s about all that remained of the pre-pandemic way of conducting oversight. The senators running the event, Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, were heads on video screens, with an array of personal items in the background as they isolated back home.
A few senators, such as Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, personally attended the session in the hearing room. They wore masks, as did an array of aides buzzing behind them.
The health committee hearing offers a very different setting from the White House coronavirus task force briefings the administration witnesses have all participated in. Most significantly, Trump did not control the agenda.
Eyeing the November elections, the president has been urging on protesters who oppose their state governors’ stay-at-home orders, while expressing his own confidence that the coronavirus will fade away as summer advances and Americans return to work and other pursuits.
The U.S. has seen at least 1.3 million infections and nearly 81,000 confirmed deaths from the virus, the highest toll in the world by far, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Separately, one expert from the World Health Organization has already warned that some countries are “driving blind” into reopening their economies without having strong systems to track new outbreaks. And three countries that do have robust tracing systems — South Korea, Germany and China — have already seen new outbreaks after lockdown rules were relaxed.
WHO’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, said Germany and South Korea have good contact tracing that hopefully can detect and stop virus clusters before they get out of control. But he said other nations — which he did not name — have not effectively employed investigators to contact people who test positive, track down their contacts and get them into quarantine before they can spread the virus.
“Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an equation as I’ve seen,” Ryan said. “Certain countries are setting themselves up for some seriously blind driving over the next few months.”
Apple, Google, some U.S. states and European countries are developing contact-tracing apps that show whether someone has crossed paths with an infected person. But experts say the technology only supplements and does not replace labor-intensive human work.
U.S. contact tracing remains a patchwork of approaches and readiness levels. States are hiring contact tracers but experts say tens of thousands will be needed across the country.
In other coronavirus developments, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled a more than $3 trillion coronavirus aid package Tuesday, providing nearly $1 trillion for states and cities, “hazard pay” for essential workers and a new round of cash payments to individuals.
The House is expected to vote on the package as soon as Friday, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there is no “urgency.” The Senate will wait until after Memorial Day to act.
“We must think big, for the people now,” Pelosi said from the speaker’s office at the Capitol.
“Not acting is the most expensive course,” she said.
Lines drawn, the pandemic response from Congress will test the House and Senate — and President Trump — as Washington navigates the crisis with the nation’s health and economic security at stake.
The so-called Heroes Act from Democrats is built around nearly $1 trillion for states, cities and tribal governments to avert layoffs, focused chiefly on $375 billion for smaller suburban and rural municipalities largely left out of earlier bills.
The bill will offer a fresh round of $1,200 direct cash aid to individuals, increased to up to $6,000 per household, and launches a $175 billion housing assistance fund to help pay rents and mortgages. There is $75 billion more for virus testing.
It would continue, through January, the $600-per-week boost to unemployment benefits. It adds a 15% increase for food stamps and new help for paying employer-backed health coverage. For businesses, it provides an employee retention tax credit.
There’s $200 billion in “hazard pay” for essential workers on the front lines of the crisis.
Pelosi drew on U.S. history — and poetry — to suggest “no man is an island” as she called on Americans to respond to the crisis with a strategy of science, virus testing and empathy.
“We are presenting a plan do what is necessary to deal with the corona crisis and make sure we can get the country back to work and school safely,” she said.
“There are those who said, ‘Let’s just pause,’” she added. “Hunger doesn’t take a pause. Rent doesn’t take a pause. Bills don’t take a pause.”
But the 1,800-page package is heading straight into a Senate roadblock. Senate Republicans are not planning to vote on any new relief until June, after a Memorial Day recess.
Trump has already signed into law nearly $3 trillion in aid approved by Congress.
McConnell on Tuesday called the emerging Democratic bill a “big laundry list of pet priorities.” He said it’s not something that “deals with reality.”
The new package extends some provisions from previous aid packages, and adds new ones.
There are other new resources, including $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service. There is help for the 2020 Census. For the November election, the bill provides $3.6 billion to help local officials prepare for the challenges of voting during the pandemic.
The popular Payroll Protection Program, which has been boosted in past bills, would see another $10 billion to ensure under-served businesses and nonprofit organizations have access to grants through a disaster loan program.
For hospitals and other health care providers, there’s another $100 billion infusion to help cover costs and additional help for hospitals serving low-income communities.
There’s another $600 million in funding to tackle the issue of rapid spread of the virus in state and federal prisons, along with $600 million in help to local police departments for salaries and equipment
McConnell said he is working with the White House on next steps. His priority is to ensure any new package includes liability protections for health care providers and businesses that are reopening. Trump is expected to meet Tuesday with a group of Senate Republicans.
“I don’t think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately,” McConnell told reporters earlier this week at the Capitol.
As states weigh the health risks of re-opening, McConnell said Tuesday the nation needs to “regroup and find a more sustainable middle ground between total lockdown and total normalcy.”
Top GOP senators flatly rejected the House bill. “What Nancy Pelosi is proposing will never pass the Senate,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, “I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency to do it now.” He noted that already-approved money still hasn’t “gone out the door.”
The Senate recently reopened its side of the Capitol while the House remains largely shuttered due to the health concerns.
Senators have been in session since last week, voting on Trump’s nominees for judicial and executive branch positions and other issues. The Senate majority, the 53-member Senate Republican conference, is meeting for its regular luncheons most days, spread out three to a table for social distance. Democrats are convening by phone. Many senators, but not all, are wearing masks.
At least a dozen Capitol police officers and other staff have tested positive for the virus, and at least one senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, is in isolation at home after exposure from a staff member who tested positive. Other lawmakers have cycled in and out of quarantine.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer warned that if Trump and congressional Republicans “slow walk” more aid they will be repeating President Herbert Hoover’s “tepid” response to the Great Depression.