The U.S. is “going in the wrong direction” when it comes to containing the spread of COVID-19, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), warned senators on Tuesday.
And with new daily cases growing in alarming fashion — now at about 40,000 per day — Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee he “would not be surprised” if that number reached 100,000 per day.
“Clearly, we are not in total control right now,” said Fauci, warning that although certain parts of the country might be less affected by the pandemic, surges in other areas put the entire nation at risk.
On the issue of children and transmission, important given the fact that schools are preparing to reopen, the NIAID director spoke carefully, and pointed to an ongoing study at the National Institutes of Health focused on determining children’s rate of infection.
“We don’t know the impact yet that children have on the transmission cycle,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, told the committee.
Throughout the hearing, Fauci and the three other administration officials — Redfield; FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, MD; and Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, MD — underscored the importance of mask wearing. And senators on both sides of the aisle joined in on that front.
“Around here, senators and staff wear masks because we don’t want to make each other sick,” said Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), making a mini public-service announcement ahead of his opening remarks.
Alexander shared how he had been exposed to a presymptomatic staffer, and that the senate physician told him one reason he may not have caught the virus was because the staffer was wearing a mask.
The Chairman also expressed frustration over how political mask wearing has become, and said he suggested that “the president should occasionally wear a mask.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) cited University of Washington research estimating that 30,000 lives could be saved if 95% of the U.S. population wore masks.
When Sanders asked whether witnesses would support the U.S. government increasing the production of high-quality masks and distributing them to every household in the country, Fauci immediately answered yes.
“Anything that furthers the use of masks … I am thoroughly in favor of,” he said.
Redfield agreed, saying that universal masking is “fundamentally the most important thing we can do.”
Giroir said the U.S. government has contracted for “hundreds of millions of cloth face coverings” that could be distributed around the country.
Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) threw some cold water on the discussion, noting that if the recommendations made by the administration officials at the hearing — to continue social distancing, wash hands frequently, and wear a mask in any public setting — were in fact U.S. policy, then the country would not be in the crisis situation that it is.
“The problem is our four panelists do not set the policy of the United States of America. The president of the United States does,” he said.
In reality, “there are two parallel messaging operations,” said Murphy, who called attention to President Trump’s retweets of articles suggesting that “masks aren’t about safety, they’re about social control.”
Murphy also touched on the president’s controversial announcement that the U.S. was withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO).
When asked about the U.S. current status in the organization, Giroir noted that he is a member and has not “been recalled.”
“I have not been given any direction to recall myself in any way,” he said, adding that the next meeting of the executive board is slated for October.
And Giroir said he believed all four of the witnesses — himself, Fauci, Redfield, and Hahn — continued to work in partnership with the WHO on public health standards.