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Dr. Anthony Fauci is warning Congress that if the country reopens too soon during the pandemic, it will bring needless suffering and death. (May 12)

AP Domestic

WASHINGTON – Top public health officials, as well as Democratic and a few Republican senators, painted a much starker picture Tuesday of the coronavirus challenges still facing the nation than the rosier outlook offered by President Donald Trump.

A day after the president declared the nation has “met the moment, and we have prevailed,” top members of his coronavirus task force sent a different message at a Senate hearing on how the nation can safely reopen.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said that while containment is moving in the right direction, the virus is not under control.

Easing restrictions too quickly will lead to “some suffering and death that could be avoided,” he warned, adding that it could also paradoxically set back attempts to recover the economy.

“It would almost run the clock back rather than going forward,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “That is my major concern.”

Fauci’s remarks to the committee came on the same day that the White House announced that Trump will travel Thursday to the politically pivotal state of Pennsylvania to spotlight his argument that the economy can be reopened safely and life can soon return to normal.

“We have met the moment, and we have prevailed,” Trump said Monday in a comment he later said meant the country prevailed on testing. 

Trump has repeatedly taken aim at Democratic governors such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Washington’s Jay Inslee, who he argues have been reluctant to reopen their states.

In a tweet on Monday, Trump said “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.”

Trump’s advisers fear the pandemic will become a political liability for him as he seeks reelection in November. Trump is betting that reopening the economy will boost his chances of winning another four years in office, but Democrats have excoriated him for what they see as his administration’s inadequate response to the virus threat.

Congressional Republicans up for reelection this fall are wrestling with whether to defend Trump’s response to coronavirus or to keep a distance so they aren’t weakened by political fallout if the virus is not contained.

Fauci told senators the novel coronavirus is unlikely to simply disappear, as Trump has repeatedly suggested.

“This is going to go away without a vaccine,” Trump told Republican lawmakers on Friday. “It’s going to go away, and it’s – we’re not going to see it again, hopefully, after a period of time.”

But Fauci dismissed that notion.

“That is just not going to happen because it’s such a highly transmissible virus,” Fauci said. “Even if we get better control over the summer months, it is likely that there will be virus somewhere on this planet that will eventually get back to us.”

But Fauci testified that the country should be better prepared to deal with a second wave of the virus in the fall, if it arrives.

Trump has called the drug remdesivir “promising” as a potential treatment for coronavirus.

But Fauci noted in his opening remarks that improvements some patients made on the drug – while statistically significant – were “really modest.”

Trump has spoken optimistically about the possibility of a coronavirus vaccine, even predicting that a vaccine could be ready by the end of the year.“

Fauci called it “much more likely than not” that there will eventually be a vaccine. But while researchers are trying more than one approach and hope to have “multiple winners,” Fauci also cautioned that it’s possible a vaccine could actually “enhance the negative effect of the infection.”

“The big unknown is efficacy,” he said.

Largely in response to Democrats’ prodding, Fauci emphasized the importance of states and communities not getting ahead of checkpoints the government has established for easing restrictions

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that Trump agrees with Fauci that states and cities should follow federal guidelines in deciding whether to re-open, and that it should be “phased in.” She also said the president wants to reopen as soon as possible because the falling economy is generating health problems of its own, from substance abuse to people who put off doctor’s visits and get sick as a result.

“We do want to reopen this country because there are consequences that run the other way when we stay closed down,” McEnany said.

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Democratic members of the Senate panel on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, piled on their criticism of the president’s handling of the pandemic.

Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, the panel’s  top Democrat, accused Trump of not telling the truth about what’s happening. She called the administration’s response a “disaster” full of missteps and delays that put the nation way behind on testing while “corruption and political interference” impeded efforts to secure enough personal protective equipment.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the administration’s guidance to states on how to reopen has been “criminally vague.”

Portions of the plan have been leaked, but officials have said it remains under review.

Murphy pressed Robert Redfield, director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, on the reason for the delay and whether the guidelines were blocked by the White House.

Redfield said the CDC is reviewing comments from other agencies about the guidance. He said it should be released “soon,” after approval from the White House task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence.

“Soon isn’t good enough,” Murphy responded.

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Some Republican senators pressed health officials on the need to get children back to school and workers back to their jobs.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, one of the most endangered Republicans up for re-election this year, homed in on how dentists could safely resume treatments.

Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, another Republican facing a challenging general election, focused her criticism on China and what she called a “cover-up” at the outset of the pandemic.

The only GOP senator on the panel to push back hard against the administration was Utah’s Mitt Romney, who is also the only Republican senator Trump didn’t include in a White House task force focused on reopening.

Romney went after a top Health and Human Services official over Trump’s boasting that the country has conducted more tests than any other country. 

The 9 million tests are “nothing to celebrate,” Romney said, “because the United States “treaded water” during the early stages of the pandemic while other countries such as South Korea tested people aggressively to curb the outbreak.

Romney said that while he understood why a politician would frame data for political gain, he didn’t expect that from an admiral such as Dr. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for health.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, opened the hearing by saying he hoped senators wouldn’t spend much of their time “finger pointing.”

But Alexander, who is retiring at the end of the year, repeated previous comments he’d made that schools and businesses can’t reopen until more Americans are being tested for the virus.

“What our country has done so far on testing is impressive,” Alexander said, “but not nearly enough.” 

Contributing: Bart Jansen and David Jackson

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