Fauci, other health officials urge masks, social distancing in congressional testimony

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WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci and other Trump administration health officials warned that coronavirus activity could continue for some time. They urged continuing social distancing and other precautions in testimony before a congressional hearing Tuesday at a key juncture in the country’s response to the pandemic.

With cases rising in nearly half the states and a White House eager to return to normal, Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, and three other key officials appeared before a House panel overseeing the Trump administration’s response. All four attended in person, not remotely.

The testimony is Fauci’s first since a highly anticipated appearance a month ago, and it comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s comments at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday that he had asked officials to slow testing to show fewer cases. Fauci and other witnesses said they had not received such a directive.

Fauci was joined before the House Energy and Commerce Committee by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Dr. Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration; and Dr. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health.

In his opening statement, Fauci told members of Congress that he was “cautiously optimistic” that an effective vaccine will be available to the American public by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

The government is providing extensive financial support to 14 vaccine candidates.

“Although you can never guarantee at all the safety and efficacy of a vaccine until you test in the field, we feel cautiously optimistic, based on the concerted effort and the fact that we are taking financial risks to be able to be ahead of the game so that when ... we get favorable candidates with good results, we will be able to make them available to the American public” within a year of when officials began researching a vaccine in mid-January, Fauci said.

Hahn said his agency intends to use “appropriate flexibility” in employing regulatory tools to provide guidance to researchers and companies working on vaccines and drugs for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But he said, “data and science will dictate” when the FDA approves safe and effective products to prevent and treat the disease.

Hahn also said the agency has launched a “comprehensive” review of all its responses involving the coronavirus. The goal, he said, is to keep “what is working well” and to adjust policies that are not producing the desired result.

The FDA has been criticized for initially being slow to clear diagnostic tests for COVID-19 from academic laboratories, and then being too lenient on antibody tests. The agency has since adjusted both policies.

When asked at the hearing by Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the committee’s top Republican, if Trump had ever instructed any of them to slow down testing, Fauci, Hahn, Redfield and Giroir said no.

“None of us have ever been told to slow down on testing,” Fauci said. “In fact, we will be doing more testing.”

The White House said Trump was joking at the rally.

In his testimony, Fauci said some states are seeing a “disturbing surge” of new coronavirus infections. The next couple of weeks “are going to be critical in our ability to address those surges,” he said.

Asked what he thinks about Trump’s decision not to wear a mask, Fauci declined to say.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., asked Fauci about the Trump administration’s belated guidance to Americans to wear face coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In late March, McKinley noted, the administration was advising the public that there was still no consensus on whether masks were effective.

“Do you now regret not advising people more forcefully to wear masks earlier?” McKinley asked.

Fauci did not appear to be pleased with the question.

“OK, we’re going to play that game,” he said. “Let me explain to you what happened back then.”

After McKinley told him that only a simple “yes” or “no” was required, Fauci shot back, “No, there’s more than a yes or no, by the tone of your question. I don’t regret that, because let me explain to you what happened: At that time, there was a paucity of equipment that our health care providers needed. ... We did not want to divert masks and PPE [personal protective equipment] away from them to be used by the people. Now that we have enough, we recommend” wearing masks.

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