The fight over when US states should reopen intensified on Tuesday, as one of the most senior members of Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force warned that ending lockdowns early could lead to “suffering and death” through uncontrollable outbreaks.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate committee hearing that reopening too soon could set back US attempts to control the disease. His warning came after the US president urged state governors to grant people their “freedom” and several states began to relax controls on movement.
Dr Fauci told the Senate health committee hearing: “If states or cities or regions in their attempt — understandably, to get back to some form of normality — disregard the checkpoints that we put in our guidelines about when it is safe to proceed in pulling back on mitigation, I feel if that occurs, you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control.”
He added: “[That will] not only [lead] to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but that could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery. Because it could almost turn the clock back rather than going forward. That is my major concern.”
There were likely to have been more deaths caused by coronavirus than the 80,900 currently counted by Johns Hopkins University, he also told the hearing. “Most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than that number . . . There may have been people who died at home, who did have Covid, who are not counted as Covid, because they never really got to the hospital.”
Health officials have given states guidelines as to when they can begin to reopen, including that cases must have been falling for 14 days. Despite this, several states, including North Dakota, Maine and Alabama, have begun to relax restrictions even as the number of cases continues to rise.
The issue has become the subject of intense public debate, with Mr Trump encouraging states to loosen their restrictions and accusing Democratic state leaders of keeping them in place for political reasons.
Over the weekend the president wrote on Twitter: “The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now, and they are fully aware of what that entails. The Democrats are moving slowly, all over the USA, for political purposes.”
Dr Fauci also directly contradicted the president’s previous assertion that the disease would “miraculously go away”, warning instead of the possibility of a second wave of cases later in the year.
“When you talk about, will this virus just disappear — I’ve said publicly many times that is just not going to happen, because it’s such a highly transmissible virus,” Dr Fauci said. “A rebound, a second wave in the fall, is entirely conceivable and possible.”
He added that he hoped if there was a second wave, the White House coronavirus task force would be able to deal with it to prevent it from becoming an outbreak.
Dr Fauci and other senior health officials — Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, and Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — were testifying remotely after two cases of coronavirus were confirmed on Monday inside the West Wing.
White House officials have been ordered to wear face masks after Mr Trump’s personal valet tested positive for the disease last week, as well as Katie Miller, communications director for vice-president Mike Pence.