WASHINGTON – In a Senate hearing Tuesday, four of the nation’s top public health officials called on all Americans to do their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and warned of dire consequences if current trends in nationwide infections continue.
The hearing came as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. passed 2.5 million, with around 40,000 new cases confirmed each day for the past week. More than 126,000 Americans have died from the disease.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, pointed to rapidly growing infection numbers in several states and said he “would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around.”
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Fauci told lawmakers. “I’m very concerned, and I’m not satisfied with what’s going on because we’re going in the wrong direction if you look at the curves of the new cases. So we’ve really got to do something about that, and we need to do it quickly. … Clearly we are not in total control right now.”
Tuesday’s hearing, the eighth time the Senate health committee has convened to question experts on the nation’s response to the pandemic, was meant to focus on the steps needed to get back to school and work.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., opened the meeting by emphasizing the harms to children of not returning to school, citing new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Fauci and three other members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force acknowledged the social and economic damage done by the shutdown and implored Americans to take the basic precautions – wearing a mask, washing hands and practicing social distancing – to make a safe reopening possible.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the committee’s top Democrat, blamed President Donald Trump for countering the clear messaging of his own health experts. The president has refused to wear a mask and recently held an indoor campaign rally where staffers reportedly removed signs intended to keep distance between attendees.
“While this public health crisis rages across the country, we’ve seen a leadership crisis raging in the White House, as the president proves times after time he cares less about how this pandemic is impacting families and communities and more about how it makes him look,” Murray said.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pointed out that Trump has 82 million Twitter followers while the agencies represented by the four experts have a combined social media following of only about 5 million.
“That’s why we’re in the position we’re in today,” Murphy said, “where you see large numbers of people not complying with recommendations because they’re hearing something very different from the chief executive and they’re watching him behave in a manner and encourage behavior that is directly contrary to what we’re being told today.”
Murray also called for a comprehensive, national vaccine plan to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to delays in widespread testing, and senators from both parties expressed concern about a lack of public trust in vaccinations.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., cited a survey conducted in late May that found only about half of Americans intend to get a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available. One in five people said they would refuse a vaccine, with the rest unsure. Fauci reiterated his optimism that a vaccine will be available by the beginning of 2021, but cautioned that “there is no guarantee.”
Sen. Rand Paul demonstrated the hostility and distrust of expertise that other senators blamed for skyrocketing infection numbers in much of the country. The Kentucky Republican used his allotted five minutes to rail against “the fatal conceit that central planners have enough knowledge somehow to tell a nation of 330 million people what they can and can’t do.”
“All I hear, Dr. Fauci, is, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that. We can’t play baseball,’ ” said Paul, who called for schools to reopen and warned Americans not to behave like “a herd with a couple of people in Washington all telling us what to do, and we like sheep blindly follow.”
Fauci, with a chuckle, asked the committee chairman for time to respond and explained that he has never said sports leagues can’t resume play.
“If you were listening, and I think you were, to my opening statement,” Fauci said to Paul, “I feel very strongly we need to do whatever we can to get the children back to school.”
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a plea to younger Americans, who appear to be driving rapid spread of the disease in states like Texas, Florida and Arizona.
“It is critical that we all take the personal responsibility to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and embrace the universal use of face coverings,” Redfield said. “Specifically, I am addressing the younger members of our society, the millennials and the Generation Zs.
“Together,” the CDC chief deadpanned, “I believe we can achieve the possible.”
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