'In fact, we will be doing more testing': Fauci says he was never asked to slow coronavirus testing
Dr. Anthony Fauci told a House panel he'd never been instructed to slow down coronavirus testing, despite recent claims from President Trump. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – Dr. Anthony Fauci told House lawmakers on Tuesday that despite President Donald Trump's claim that he had asked officials to "slow the testing down," he had never been given such a directive.
"To my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing. That just is a fact," he said. Fauci said testing and contact surveillance were fundamental to "understand exactly what's going on in community spread."
"So, it's the opposite. We're going to be doing more testing, not less," said Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert at the National Institutes of Health.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing came amid continued scrutiny over Trump's handling of the virus and nationwide protests over racism and police brutality, which sent hundreds of thousands marching into streets amid the pandemic. Fauci was joined by Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention; Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health for Health and Human Services, and answered questions for nearly six hours about the virus and offered an update on how the nation is weathering the pandemic.
Trump has received fresh criticism after holding a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week – something that concerned some health experts – and for telling the crowd he asked for a slow down on testing.
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"Here's the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people, you're going to find more cases," Trump said. "So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.'"
Some of Trump's advisers said the president intended the remark in jest. But when asked earlier Tuesday whether he had been joking about a reduction in testing, Trump said, "I don't kid."
Like Fauci, Redfield, Hahn and Giroir each told lawmakers they had never heard any request from the White House to slow down testing.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told USA TODAY earlier Tuesday that the administration had "absolutely not" moved to curtail COVID-19 testing. He said Giroir reports to the NIH every morning about the number of tests that have been conducted.
"I think it’s now 23 million and it goes up every day. And we’re all totally motivated to see it go up even faster," Collins said.
The coronavirus has infected 2.3 million Americans and killed more than 120,000.
States are ramping up reopening efforts following lockdown measures meant to slow the spread of the virus. A growing number of those states have seen spikes in the number of cases – such as Florida, which recently reported a record number of daily cases.
Trump again blamed increased testing for the spike in a tweet Tuesday morning.
"Cases are going up in the U.S. because we are testing far more than any other country, and ever expanding," he said. "With smaller testing we would show fewer cases!"
But Fauci told the committee that in states where there is an increase in the percentage of people testing positive, it is a clear "indication that there are additional infections that are responsible for those increases."
Fauci said the "disturbing surge of infections" was due to a combination of factors, including an increase in person-to-person transmission, or community spread.
"That's something that I'm really quite concerned about," Fauci said. "The way you address that – and I've said this over and over again – is you have to have the manpower, the system, the testing, to identify, isolate and contact trace in an effective way, so that when you see those increases, you can understand where they're coming from."
He advised Florida and other states that are seeing a spike in cases to adhere to the "carefully thought out" CDC guidelines for phased reopenings, "to stay within the framework of the particular phase of reopening you're in, and to not throw caution to the wind."
In addition to concern about community spread that might result from Trump's rally in Tulsa, and another event that was planned for Tuesday in Arizona, there is fear that the massive protests against police brutality and discrimination that erupted around the nation in recent weeks could trigger a spike in cases.
"I'll be very consistent and I'll say it yet again, that you should not congregate in crowds. You should keep distance," Fauci said. But he acknowledged that "many people, for a variety of reasons, do not listen to the – not suggestion – but plea to not congregate in crowds.
"If you do, please wear a mask. And as you wear a mask, and you're in a situation where you're getting animated – in a demonstration, or in a rally, or wherever you are – avoid as best as possible the urge to pull your mask down and shout."
Fauci raised eyebrows during the hearing after being questioned about the end of a grant at the National Institutes of Health that was being used to help researchers examine coronaviruses and the transmission of diseases from bats to humans.
Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, asked why it was canceled in the middle of a pandemic when such research could have been vital, to which Fauci said he did not know the rationale behind the sudden halt of the program.
"I don't know the reason but we were told to cancel it," Fauci said.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., asked Fauci why the coronavirus has taken a greater toll on the African-American community.
"There are two elements that make it much more difficult for them and why they're suffering disproportionately," Fauci replied. One, African-Americans are more likely to be employed in occupations that don't allow them to work remotely. And two, underlying medical conditions that make death or serious consequences from COVID-19 more likely "are clearly disproportionately more expressed in the African American population than in the rest of the population."
Rush asked whether Fauci thought racism was to blame.
"Obviously, the African-American community has suffered from racism for a very, very long period of time. And I cannot imagine that that has not contributed to the conditions that they find themselves in economically and otherwise," Fauci said. "So, the answer, congressman, is yes."
In his opening remarks, Fauci said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the progress that has been made toward developing a vaccine for COVID-19, which he said would likely be the "nail in the coffin" needed to end the coronavirus pandemic.
Fauci said there were a number of promising vaccines in development and that it's about "when and not if" they get positive results. He reiterated his hope that a vaccine could be made available by the end of 2020 or early 2021.
One reason he is optimistic a vaccine could be developed in record time is that companies are producing them "at risk." He explained that does not mean risking safety or effectiveness, but rather money, because companies are moving forward with mass production before completing clinical trials. That way, they can immediately distribute a large number of doses if a vaccine is approved, though they risk manufacturing a vaccine that does not end up proving safe or effective.
Trump has blamed the World Health Organization for the pandemic, arguing that incompetence and a lack of skepticism about China's initial statements on the outbreak contributed to the rapid spread. He has halted funding to the WHO and threatened to pull out altogether.
Fauci said he had concerns about that decision but "despite any policy issues that come from higher up in the White House, we at the operational level continue to interact with the WHO in a very meaningful way, literally on a day by day basis."
"We are continuing to work with WHO in our public health efforts in a number of different programs," Redfield added. "Clearly, there can be limitations in our ability to provide direct funding to the WHO, but we have the ability to provide funding to the operations through different mechanisms, so we continue the public health work that we need to get done."
Fauci was last on Capitol Hill in May, when he testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and warned senators that reopening efforts by states needed to be done cautiously because it presents a "real risk that you will trigger an outbreak."
At the time, the White House made Fauci available to testify before the Republican-controlled Senate but did not for the Democratic-controlled House. After Fauci was barred from appearing before House lawmakers, Trump called the House a "bunch of Trump haters."
During the rally, President Trump touted his success during the pandemic, saying he saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Wochit