Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned bluntly of “really serious” consequences of suffering, death and deeper economic damage if state and local officials lift stay-at-home orders too quickly, even as President Donald Trump pushes them to act to right a free-falling economy.
Dr Fauci’s evidence before a Senate committee came as more than two dozen states have begun to lift their lockdowns as a first step toward economic recovery.
Underscoring the seriousness of the pandemic that has reached Congress and the White House, Dr Fauci and other experts gave evidence by video from their homes.
Senator Lamar Alexander chaired the hearing by video from the study in his cabin in Tennessee, though several members of the Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee did attend at the Capitol.
Dr Fauci and other health officials stressed that pandemic danger persists, even as testing increases and work toward a vaccine and a treatment continues.
More Covid-19 infections are inevitable as people again start gathering, but how prepared communities are to stamp out those sparks will determine how bad the rebound is, Dr Fauci told the senators.
“There is no doubt, even under the best of circumstances, when you pull back on mitigation you will see some cases appear,” Dr Fauci said.
And if there is a rush to reopen without following guidelines, “my concern is we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” he said.
“The consequences could be really serious.”
In fact, he said opening too soon “could turn the clock back”, and that not only would cause “some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”
Dr Fauci was among the health experts giving evidence on Tuesday to the Senate panel.
His evidence comes as President Donald Trump is praising states that are reopening after the prolonged lockdown aimed at controlling the virus’s spread.
Mr Alexander, a Republican chairman of the committee, said as the hearing opened that “what our country has done so far in testing is impressive, but not nearly enough”.
Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 4.2 million people and killed over 287,000, more than 80,000 in the US alone.
Asked if the US mortality count was correct, Dr Fauci said: “The number is likely higher.
“I don’t know exactly what percent higher but almost certainly it’s higher.”
Dr Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force charged with shaping the response to Covid-19, gave evidence via video conference after self-quarantining as a White House staffer tested positive for the virus.
With the US economy in free-fall and more than 30 million people unemployed, Mr Trump has been pressuring states to reopen.
A recent review determined that 17 states did not meet a key White House benchmark for loosening restrictions, a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates.
Yet many of those have begun to reopen or are about to do so, including Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.
Of the 33 states that have had a 14-day downward trajectory of either cases or positive test rates, 25 are partially opened or moving to reopen within days, the AP analysis found.
Other states that have not seen a 14-day decline, remain closed despite meeting some benchmarks.