Enlarge /. Dr. Anthony Fauci testified at a May 12 hearing in front of an extremely sparsely populated Senate Chamber how safe it is to reopen US schools and businesses.
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Months after schools and businesses across the country were closed to curb the spread of COVID-19 and most Americans settled at home, we all have one question in common: what now? When can we send our kids back to school? Can those who have lost their jobs look for new ones? How do we know when it's safe … anything?
We need to be careful and patient to avoid massive new outbreaks when states and cities go online again, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told Congress. "I am concerned that we will see small peaks that could lead to outbreaks," Fauci said today in a hearing to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Work and Pensions (HELP).
Fauci was the key witness at the hearing and testified with Stephen Hahn, Commissioner for Food and Drug Administration, Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Brett Giroir, Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Human Services .
The hearing was unusual in that a majority of participants, including all four witnesses, testified remotely during a video conference. Fauci, Hahn and Redfield voluntarily isolate themselves from possible exposure to COVID-19 in the White House.
The senators' most common questions concerned schools and the possibility of a vaccine.
"I would be very realistic" with a headmaster or chancellor who has to bring his students back in the fall, said Fauci. "The idea of having treatments or a vaccine to help students re-enter in the fall semester would be a bridge too far." Still, Fauci said, "We don't necessarily think about treating a student who gets sick, but how to make a student feel safe about returning to school."
"We have to take it step by step if we go back to school in the fall, right where we are with the outbreak," he added.
Fauci also repeatedly emphasized that we simply do not know what long-term effects COVID-19 has on children. "I think we should be better careful that we are not carefree with children and think that they are completely immune to the harmful effects," said Fauci. Children seem to recover faster and generally have less immediate effects than adults. But Fauci said, "I don't know everything about this disease, so I'm very reluctant to make broad predictions."
The reopening will lead to new infections, he added. "It will absolutely happen." But it is what local, state, and federal leaders do in response to determining whether a region or nation is experiencing a serious or manageable upswing.
"When you're about to open up, you really need to be able to respond when you have the inevitable improvements in certain cases," said Fauci. "If you do not respond appropriately, we will have the harmful consequences of more infections and more deaths."
An "adequate response", apart from a vaccine or new treatments, usually dramatically increases the availability and reliability of tests. The witnesses agreed on this front. "By September," Giroir promised, when it all comes together, "we expect our nation to be able to do at least 40 to 50 million tests a month if necessary."
To date, approximately 9 million COVID-19 tests have been performed in the United States. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) Pointed out that 40 million tests per month would average around 1.3 million tests per day; Currently, he found that around 300,000 to 400,000 tests are performed daily.
Ultimately, the safest way to ensure people's safety is to develop and distribute a vaccine. And at least there Fauci was optimistic.
A vaccine is "definitely not a long way to go; I think it is more than likely that we can develop one," Fauci told the Senate:
This virus triggers an immune response and the vast majority of people recover. The fact that the body is able to spontaneously eliminate the virus shows me that we can at least conceptually stimulate the body with a vaccine that causes a similar response. While there is no guarantee, I think this is clearly more likely than not.