Washington – The United States' top infectious disease official, Anthony Fauci, is expected to issue a stern warning against reopening the economy too soon during a Senate hearing Tuesday, saying it risks multiple new coronavirus outbreaks throughout the country.
The U.S. risks "the danger of trying to open the country prematurely,” Fauci said in an email to a New York Times reporter ahead of his testimony. Fauci and other health officials — and even the committee chairman — will appear remotely because of potential exposure to the virus.
"If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to ‘Open America Again,’ then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country,” Fauci wrote. "This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”
Fauci indicated late Monday that he will warn against cutting corners on standards set by the administration. These include thresholds such as a "downward trajectory” of documented cases or positive tests "within a 14-day period.”
Amid the sharpest downtown in U.S. history, President Donald Trump has been pressing to begin relaxing the lockdowns that have shuttered businesses despite warnings from some public health experts that doing so too quickly risks a further spread of the virus.
"I want it to reopen safely, but I want it to reopen,” Trump said at a White House news conference Monday, where he and other administration officials insisted there’s enough testing available to support limited efforts to reopen the country.
The circumstances of the Health Committee hearing, which will include Fauci as well as Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accentuates the difficulty the U.S. faces as states move to let businesses reopen and encourage consumers to go out and spend.
Plans for the hearing took an abrupt twist on Sunday when Fauci, Redfield and a third witness — Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn — all said they had come into contact with a member of the White House staff who tested positive for the coronavirus and were in full or partial quarantine.
The panel’s Republican chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander, will lead the hearing from his home in Tennessee, as he’s also in self quarantine "out of an abundance of caution” after one of his aides tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, according to a statement from his office.
A fourth witness, Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary Brett Giroir, also will testify by video.
The White House has had its own brush with the spread of the virus in unexpected places. Trump said Monday he demanded that everyone entering the West Wing wear a face mask after a White House valet and Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary tested positive for coronavirus infection.
Democrats on the committee will be looking to find any daylight between the health officials’ positions and the president’s. Among them is Senator Patty Murray, the panel’s ranking Democrat whose home state of Washington was the first in the U.S. to be hit with a wave of coronavirus cases.
Murray intends to press for answers about whether the White House has interfered with the advice of the witnesses, how the administration is preparing for fair distribution of any future vaccine and what she sees as a lack of leadership in creating better capacity for testing, according to an aide familiar with her plans.
"The fact of the matter is, President Trump has been more focused on fighting against the truth, than fighting this virus — and Americans have sadly paid the price,” Murray will say, according to an excerpt of her prepared remarks.
The panel includes two senators who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination this year, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Both have been vocal Trump critics.
Trump had blocked Fauci from testifying to a House panel on the coronavirus, saying that chamber is controlled by Democrats and "they put every Trump hater on the committee.”
Tuesday’s hearing comes amid questions as to whether a second wave of infections could force another shutdown, and to what extent a reopening can occur sooner in places where the number of cases have been fewer.
The witnesses could be asked about the models the administration has been using to project the number of possible deaths in the U.S. due to the virus, numbers that have varied widely and have been criticized as too low.
Redfield may be asked about why the White House shelved a CDC draft report that spelled out in greater detail how and when states could safely reopen and past statements he made about the strain on health systems later in the year if a resurgence in the coronavirus coincides with the annual flu season.
Other issues that could come up include the process used by the administration to distribute remdesivir to hospitals. The drug was developed by Gilead Sciences Inc., and has shown preliminary promise as a treatment for the virus. They are likely to be asked about when further data will be released about the drug’s effectiveness, and when a vaccine could become available.
Hahn could face questions about pressure Trump has applied on the FDA to approve controversial treatments like the drug hydroxychloroquine.
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