‘Suffering and death’ ahead if US states open too soon, says Fauci
Jacob Greber

Washington | America could suffer even greater “suffering and death” and hamper its economic recovery if some states reopen for business prematurely, said America’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci.

In a closely watched hearing before a Senate health committee on Tuesday (Wednesday AEST), Dr Fauci and other health officials issued a series of warnings that jarred against the Trump administration’s recent calls for a rapid return to work.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, speaking from his home to a Senate hearing. Getty

“It would almost turn the clock back rather than going forward,” the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the hearing in testimony that sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average down more than 200 points.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control, which in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided but could even set you back on the road to get economic recovery.”

The remarks, which came under intensive questioning from both sides of the Senate aisle, came as official data compiled by Johns Hopkins University showed more than 80,680 Americans have perished from the COVID-19 virus and a further 1.3 million are infected.

Contradicting a growing social-media conspiracy that the death toll is being artificially inflated to harm Donald Trump, the officials warned that the real number of fatalities and cases is likely to be far higher.

Most US states have already announced some degree of loosening of restrictions or plans to do so in coming weeks, even as their coronavirus case loads keep growing.

With political pressure mounting on governors and mayors to restart America’s shattered economy – more than 20 million people were fired last month – authorities across the country are adopting different yardsticks to judge when it’s best to move.

Speaking from his home where he is quarantined, Dr Fauci said his concern is that “if some areas, cities, states, what have you, jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks”.

He again put great weight on the discovery and approval of a vaccine, and said he was optimistic a solution would be found.

However, he also said it was a “bridge too far” to expect such treatments to be ready in time for the start of this year’s US school year, in late August or early September.

Senators at the hearing, many of whom have had low public profiles since the shutdowns were imposed almost two months ago, called for greater testing and Democrats attacked the Trump administration’s claims on Monday that the issue had been solved.

Republican and White House gadfly Mitt Romney took assistant secretary of health, admiral Brett Giroir to task for claiming this week that the US was doing twice the per capita testing of South Korea.

“I understand that politicians are going to frame data in a way that’s most positive politically,” Senator Romney said. “Of course, I don’t expect that from admirals.

“I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever.”

Another Republican, Richard Burr of North Carolina, challenged the Centers for Disease Control for being slow to set up contract tracing as Congress has requested.

“I’m hopeful we won’t just talk about surveillance… we’ll actually execute it,” Senator Burr said.

The committee’s top Democrat, Senator Patty Murray of Washington state, from where she appeared from her home via video link, also challenged Admiral Giroir.

“This administration has had a record of bringing us broken promises that more supplies and testing are coming and they don’t,” she said.

“We know that testing needs will persist long past June. Long past.”

The committee showdown came as Democrats revealed they want Congress to pass another colossal economic relief package, this time valued at $US3 trillion ($4.6 trillion), almost doubling the sum that has already been provided.

Republicans, who control the Senate, have indicated strong resistance to another big-ticket package of spending.

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Jacob Greber writes about American politics, economics and business from our Washington bureau. He was previously our economics correspondent based in Canberra. Connect with Jacob on Twitter. Email Jacob at jgreber@afr.com

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