US disease expert cautions against rapid economic reopening during pandemic

By Lucia Leal

Washington, May 12 (efe-epa).- Fresh outbreaks of the novel coronavirus and numerous unnecessary deaths could occur in states that open up their economies prematurely, the United States government’s top epidemiologist said Tuesday in testimony before a Senate committee via videoconference.

Dr. Anthony Fauci’s picture of the Covid-19 situation in the US was much more grim that the one offered earlier this week by US President Donald Trump, who said Monday in reference to expanded testing for the respiratory disease that “we have met the moment and we have prevailed.”

“I think we’re going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have by any means total control of this outbreak,” said the 79-year-old Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

A member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force who has frequently contradicted Trump’s remarks about the disease, Fauci said that the number of deaths officially attributed to Covid-19 – more than 80,000 – is unacceptably high.

He also said that the real number of fatalities is likely even higher because people may have died at home in places like hard-hit New York City, whose hospitals were packed with patients at the peak of the outbreak there.

The Trump administration’s coronavirus testing czar, United States Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services Brett Giroir, said in remarks to senators on Tuesday that the country has ramped up its capabilities and will be able to perform 40 million or 50 million tests per month by September if necessary.

Even so, Fauci warned that states that lack sufficient testing and contact-tracing infrastructure to ensure that people are virus-free before going back to work must exercise caution in reopening their economies.

“If some areas, cities, states or 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,” Fauci said. “I have been very clear in my message – to try, to the best extent possible, to go by the guidelines, which have been very well thought-out and very well-delineated.”

Fauci – and even the president, to a lesser extent – has faced criticism from the right for lockdowns that have crashed the economy and caused the number of initial applications for unemployment insurance (a proxy for layoffs) to soar to more than 33 million in less than two months.

One of the opponents of the drastic stay-at-home measures imposed by states nationwide in recent weeks has been Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who recovered from a bout with the coronavirus and said during questioning time that a more nuanced approach is needed.

In pointed remarks, the former ophthalmologist-turned-politician said Fauci is not the “end-all” and should not have the final say on what that strategy is.

“It’s not to say this isn’t deadly, but really, outside of New England, we’ve had a relatively benign course for this virus nationwide,” Paul said. “And I think the one-size-fits-all, that we’re going to have a national strategy and nobody is going to go to school, is kind of ridiculous. We really ought to be doing it school district by school district, and the power needs to be dispersed because people make wrong predictions.”

Fauci replied by saying “I’ve never made myself out to be the end-all” and cautioning that although the numbers show that elderly people with preconditions such as diabetes and high-blood pressure are those most at risk “we don’t know everything about this virus.”

He also recalled that there have been cases of children with the coronavirus who came down with a “very strange inflammatory syndrome.”

Referring to the possibility that a vaccine can be the answer to Covid-19, the epidemiologist noted that at least eight clinical trials are under way and said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

But “there’s no guarantee that the vaccine is actually going to be effective,” Fauci said. “There is also the possibility of negative consequences where certain vaccines can actually enhance the negative effect of the infection.” EFE-EPA


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