May 13, 2020

Fauci: Reopening too soon could lead to 'suffering and death that could be avoided'

Daily Briefing

    Federal public health officials during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday warned that the United States must proceed cautiously with reopening plans and ensure widespread testing or risk a resurgence of Covid-19 cases. Separately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) unveiled another sweeping economic stimulus package.

    New: Q&A with Kimberly Daniel, JD on Covid-19 and employment law

    US Covid-19 cases surpass 1.3M, death toll tops 82K

    The news comes as U.S. officials as of Wednesday morning reported 1,376,700 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus—up from 1,354,300 cases as of Tuesday morning.

    As of Wednesday morning, officials also reported a total of 82,355 U.S. deaths linked to the new coronavirus—up from 80,684 deaths reported as of Tuesday morning.

    Senate panel asks top health officials whether US can safely reopen

    As the number of Covid-19 cases and related deaths continue to rise, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Tuesday held the Senate's first major hearing on the country's new coronavirus epidemic. The hearing focused on whether the United States can safely reopen nonessential businesses and ease social distancing measures intended to slow the new coronavirus' spread.

    Four top health officials, who are quarantining after coming in contact with a Covid-19-positive individual, testified before the committee at Tuesday's virtual hearing. Those officials were:

    • Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases;
    • Brett Giroir, HHS' assistant secretary for health, who is overseeing the Trump administration's Covid-19 testing efforts;
    • Stephen Hahn, FDA's commissioner; and
    • Robert Redfield, CDC's director.

    During the hearing, the health officials shared their views on whether the country is prepared to reopen, provided updates on the development of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, and discussed the accuracy of the country's Covid-19 death toll as well as Covid-19's broader impact on health care, STAT News reports.

    Fauci during the hearing warned that reopening the United States' economy too fast would result in "really serious" consequences and a resurgence of Covid-19 cases. He said, "There is no doubt, even under the best of circumstances: When you pull back on mitigation, you will see some cases appear. My concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks."

    Fauci said if public health officials are unable to conduct widespread testing and contact tracing, then new cases of Covid-19 could create new outbreaks. He said, "If that occurs, 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."

    He added that if the United States moves too quickly to reopen, it could lead to "suffering and death that could be avoided—but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery, because you'd almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward."

    Redfield noted that CDC has assessed states' ability to contact trace emerging cases of Covid-19. "Timely testing is vital to reopen America. Increasing contact tracing is critical," he said.

    Meanwhile, Giroir said he expects the United States to see a significant increase in testing capacity in coming weeks. He estimated that by September, the United States should be able to perform 40 million to 50 million tests.

    When Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) asked Fauci if University of Tennessee's students would be able to return to their university in the fall with vaccinations to make them immune to Covid-19, Fauci said it would be unlikely "It's a bit of a bridge too far. Even at the top speed we're going, we don't see a vaccine playing [into] the ability of individuals going back to school this term," Fauci said.  

    But Fauci noted a vaccine against the new coronavirus could become available within a year or two. He said, "It's definitely not a long shot. It's clearly much more likely than not that somewhere in that time frame, we will get a vaccine for the virus."

    Fauci also told committee members that the U.S. Covid-19 death toll is likely an undercount, noting that patients in New York City may have died of Covid-19 without being hospitalized or formally diagnosed. "Most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than that number," he said.

    Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked the health officials about the federal government's plans to distribute remdesivir moving forward. Hahn said the administration "learned a lot of lessons" from the government's initial approach to distributing remdesivir and would use a "data-driven" approach to distribute the remdesivir and other drugs in the future.

    House unveils new economic stimulus package

    Separately, House Democrats on Tuesday released a fifth economic stimulus package (HR 6800) with funding for states to increase their Covid-19 testing capacity, and $100 billion in grants to help hospitals and health care providers cover expenses related to the Covid-19 public health emergency.

    The bill, called the Heroes Act, would require the HHS secretary to update the strategic testing plan with new benchmarks and timelines. Under the bill, public health departments would receive $75 billion in grants to cover costs related to contact tracing, containment activities, testing, and surveillance. The bill would require public health departments to use culturally responsive and multilingual contact tracing strategies and public awareness campaigns.

    In addition, the bill would give $500 billion to help states address the financial impacts of the country's new coronavirus epidemic, and $345 billion for local governments and $20 billion for tribal governments.

    Further, the bill seeks to help public health departments by establishing a loan repayment program for public health departments to recruit and retain employees, and authorizing grants for public health departments to obtain technology-based learning tools.

    The House is expected to vote on the bill on Friday, but it's not yet clear if the Senate will take up the proposal (Facher, STAT News, 5/12; Neergaard/Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press, 5/13; Thomas et al., New York Times, 5/12; Burton/Armour, Wall Street Journal, 5/13; Lim, Politico, 5/12; Werner, Washington Post, 5/12; Cirruzzo, Inside Health Policy, 5/12 [subscription required]; Cohrs, Modern Healthcare, 5/12; Associated Press, 5/13; Mascaro/Taylor, Associated Press, 5/13; New York Times, 5/13; Andrews/Duehren, Wall Street Journal, 5/12).

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