Months after schools and businesses nationwide shut down to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and most of America started hunkering down at home, we’re all left with one common question: now what? When can we send our kids to school again? Can those who have lost jobs start looking for new ones? How will we know when it’s safe to do… well, anything?
We need to be careful and patient to avoid massive new outbreaks as states and cities begin to come back online, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert and director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress. “My concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Fauci testified to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) in a hearing today.
Fauci was the star witness at the hearing, testifying alongside Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, and Adm. Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services.
The hearing was unusual in that a majority of the participants, including all four witnesses, were testifying remotely over video conference. Fauci, Hahn, and Redfield are all voluntarily self-isolating after possible exposure to COVID-19 at the White House.
The most common questions across the board from the senators focused on schools and the possibility of a vaccine.
“I would be very realistic” with a principal or chancellor who needs to get their students back in the fall, Fauci said. “The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the re-entry of students in the fall term would be a bit of a bridge too far.” That said, Fauci stressed, “We’re not necessarily thinking about treating a student who gets ill but how to make a student feel safe going back to school.”
“We have to take it on a step-by-step basis, as we get into the fall with reopening the schools, exactly where we are with the outbreak,” he added.
Fauci also stressed several times that we simply do not know what the long-term effects of COVID-19 are in children. “I think we’d better be careful that we are not cavalier with children, thinking they’re completely immune to the deleterious effects,” Fauci said. Kids do seem to bounce back more quickly and suffer fewer immediate effects, in general, than adults. But, Fauci said, “I don’t know everything about this disease, and that’s why I am very reserved about making broad predictions.”
Re-opening will lead to new infections, he added. “That absolutely will occur.” But it’s what local, state, and federal leaders do in response that will determine whether a region or the nation suffers a serious rebound or a manageable one.
“When you are in the process of opening up, you really must have in place the capability of responding when you have the inevitable upticks in cases,” Fauci said. “If you do not do an adequate response, we will have the deleterious consequence of more infections and more deaths.”
An “adequate response,” aside from a vaccine or any new treatments, mostly involves a dramatic increase in the availability and reliability of tests. The witnesses were unanimous on that front. “By September,” Giroir promised, if everything comes together, “we project that our nation will be capable of performing at least 40 to 50 million tests per month if needed at that time.”
To date, so far, about 9 million COVID-19 tests have been performed in the United States. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) pointed out that 40 million tests in a month would average to about 1.3 million tests per day; currently, he observed, we are seeing about 300,000 to 400,000 tests performed per day.
Ultimately, of course, the most surefire way to keep people safe is to develop and distribute a vaccine. And there, at least, Fauci was optimistic.
A vaccine is “definitely not a long shot; I think it is more likely than not that we will” be able to develop one, Fauci told the Senate:
This virus induces an immune response, and the overwhelming majority of people recover. The very fact that the body is capable of spontaneously clearing the virus tells me that, at least from a conceptual standpoint, we can stimulate the body with a vaccine that will induce a similar response. So although there is no guarantee, I think it is clearly more likely than not.