(CNN) — Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, warned senators Tuesday that states and cities face serious consequences if they open up too quickly, urging states not to reopen until they know they have the capabilities to handle an inevitable uptick in cases once they relax stay at home orders.
In a high-profile hearing where witnesses and many lawmakers joined via video conference, Fauci also told a Senate committee on Tuesday that schools should not expect a vaccine or widely available treatment for COVID-19 by the time students return to campuses in the fall, saying the notion of a vaccine or treatment at that point was a “bridge too far.”
Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was subdued but candid in his testimony about efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and roll-back stay-at-home orders on Tuesday in the Senate’s first hearing on the coronavirus outbreak since March. But his comments still contrasted President Donald Trump, who has increasingly in recent days pushed for states to re-open businesses.
“My concern that 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 we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Fauci said in testimony before the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee.
Tuesday’s hearing, titled “Covid-19: Safely getting back to work and school,” was a strange reminder of the challenges coronavirus poses and the lengths Congress has gone to try to operate with any semblance of normalcy. All four witnesses and committee leaders appeared remotely. Three of the witnesses and the chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, weren’t present because they’re self-isolating or self-quarantining after contact with individuals who tested positive for coronavirus.
Alexander quarterbacked the hearing via video conference at his cabin in Maryville, Tennessee. His dog, Rufus, could be heard barking in the background while the chairman was speaking. Inside the mostly empty hearing room, which was closed to the public, some of the senators in attendance were wearing masks, while others were not while sitting at their socially distanced seats below the normal hearing dais.
Fauci and other public health experts, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield testified Tuesday in what could be one of the only public hearings featuring members of the White House coronavirus task force.
Democrats pressed Fauci and the officials on the disconnect between the President’s comments and the recommendations of public health experts.
“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,” said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “President Trump is trying to ignore the facts, and ignore the experts who have been clear we are nowhere close to where we need to be to reopen safely.”
The hearing comes as states across the country have started taking actions to roll back the business closures and stay-at-home orders that were put in place two months ago to try to slow the coronavirus infection rate, though the outbreak is far from over.
Republicans warn against ‘finger-pointing’
The hearing is likely to further illustrated the divide within the country between Republicans and Democrats over their views on the pandemic, how the administration has handled the crisis and the best path forward amid warnings from public health experts that positive cases could surge if stay-at-home orders are rolled back too quickly.
Alexander and other Republicans on the panel viewed Tuesday’s hearing as a showcase for what the administration has been working on, and they hope the reputations of scientists like Fauci will lend credibility to the work that is occurring. In his opening statement, Alexander urged senators not to engage in “finger-pointing” when the entire world underestimated the virus.
“Before we spend too much time finger-pointing, I’d like to suggest that almost all of us, the United States and almost every country, so far as I can tell, underestimated this virus, underestimated how contagious it would be, underestimated how it could travel silently in people without symptoms to infect other people,” Alexander said.
Alexander has been pushing for the Trump administration to ramp up its testing, even while Trump has repeatedly claimed the U.S. is “leading the world” on testing and falsely claimed any American who wants a test can get a test. Alexander walked the line between the competing claims in his opening statement, saying that the US efforts on testing were “impressive” but more needed to be done.
“All roads back to work and back to school run through testing. And that what our country has done so far on testing is impressive, but not nearly enough,” Alexander said.
Murray agreed with Alexander on the need for more testing, but she was much more critical of the Trump administration. “We need dramatically more testing. It’s unacceptable we still don’t have a national strategic plan to make sure testing is free, fast and everywhere,” she said.
Fauci has become one of the Trump administration’s leading — and most credible — voices during the pandemic as a career public health official leading National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been willing to break with Trump on issues like testing and rolling back stay-at-home orders.
Democrats are hopeful that Fauci will give the public his honest assessment Tuesday — even if it means criticizing the President.
“Dr. Fauci is a truth-teller, that’s his reputation. It seems he has sort of muted the truth some in the presence of the President … he has to tell the whole truth here,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” Tuesday morning.
Schumer put it bluntly in a statement on the Senate floor Monday night: “Dr. Fauci, let it rip.”
Democrats question why experts’ opinions cast aside
A wide range of issues are likely to be raised at Tuesday’s hearing.
Murray plans to ask the officials about reports the White House has interfered with recommendations from public health experts, the federal government’s efforts to ramp up testing and how the administration is planning ahead for how it would distribute a coronavirus vaccine, according to an aide. And Democrats are sure to raise the whistleblower complaint from Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted director of the office involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine who charged he was removed for expressing caution toward a treatment favored by Trump.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican on the committee, said his chief concern is schools and the federal government’s plan for getting them reopened in the fall. “I’ve not seen a plan on how we reopen schools. So that’s my concern,” Cassidy told CNN Monday.
And Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said he plans to question the witnesses on why the US has “done so much worse” than other countries in dealing with the pandemic and “what does that suggest for the next steps we need to take?”
“We have a president telling the American public they need to be warriors and get out in the midst of all the danger, when the nation’s chief health officials are trying to make the right decisions about their own health,” Kaine said.
The hearing could be one of Democrats’ only chances to question Fauci and other senior officials after the White House has said they would make limited exceptions to a policy that officials on the White House’s task force should be spending their time combating coronavirus, not testifying before Congress.
Asked last week why he wouldn’t allow Fauci to testify before the House Appropriations Committee, Trump said: “Because the House is a setup. The House is a bunch of Trump haters.”
Witnesses have been prepping remotely
In addition to Fauci and Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Adm. Brett Giroir, the Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, are testifying at Tuesday’s hearing. Aides from the White House legislative affairs office, as well as the HHS legislative affairs office, are working with the witnesses ahead of the hearing.
Giroir gave a presentation at the White House on Monday during Trump’s press conference touting U.S. coronavirus testing capabilities.
“No matter how you look at it, America is leading the world in testing,” he said. “No other country in the world comes close in terms of total numbers.”
All four witnesses will be testifying remotely, and Alexander and Murray will also be appearing via video conference. Hahn and Redfield are both self-isolating due to their contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, and Fauci has said he will observe a “modified quarantine” after what he described as “low-risk” contact with Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary who tested positive last week.
A person familiar with the hearing prep said the White House and Health and Human Services aides helping the four witnesses get ready are doing so remotely — they are not conducting in-person prep sessions, given that three of the four witnesses are in some form of isolation.
Alexander is self-quarantining for 14 days after a staffer in his office tested positive for coronavirus. Alexander worked with his staff Monday to ensure that he’s comfortable with the remote technology the committee will be using on Tuesday.
Alexander said in a statement Sunday that he spoke with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about granting an exception for Tuesday’s hearing to the administration’s policy about officials not testifying remotely.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.