By now, you probably know who Dr. Anthony Fauci is. And you probably know how you feel about him. More than half of Americans say they think Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is handling the coronavirus well. But President Donald Trump and a few of his closest advisers have begun murmuring about Fauci over the past few days, highlighting the ways they think the doctor has stumbled since this coronavirus began spreading. The White House has given reporters anti-Fauci talking points, and a top adviser to the president challenged Fauci on the op-ed pages of USA Today. But Fauci has not been afraid to speak up in his own defense. So, for Tuesday’s episode of What Next, we called him to talk about the politics and science of this moment. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: The New York Times ran a whole story saying that the chatter in Washington is “What’s happening to Dr. Fauci?” Do you get asked that question directly? Do you want to answer it?
Anthony Fauci: Well, you know, a lot of what you’ve heard about an editorial that was written, I think, to the displeasure of most people in the White House—
By Peter Navarro.
Yeah, I mean, that’s a whole bunch of nonsense that we need to just put aside to concentrate on this very important task on which we need to work together. So when I hear and see those things, you’ve got to trust me, I try to pay as little attention to it as I possibly can.
Your role in the coronavirus response has shifted over the course of the pandemic. Could you walk me through a day in your life right now?
For example, we’re speaking Monday. I’ve actually been in my office working with my team in the development of vaccines and in therapies and diagnostics. This afternoon, soon after we finish this discussion, I will rush downtown to the White House, where I will spend time with the Coronavirus Task Force. We’ll be doing a governors call to help the governors as they work their way through this difficult situation. Down at the White House, very likely I’ll get time to chat considerably with the vice president and then come back and continue to do work here. So it’s a packed day.
Given all the back-and-forth over the course of this past week, do you fear for your job at all?
No, no. It depends on what you mean by my “job.” I mean, my job is as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. I have no fear at all about my job of being a member of the Coronavirus Task Force. I have been assured by the president and by everyone in the White House that we are fine. I think that’s all chatter that you hear. I don’t think there’s any reason for anybody to want to remove me from the Coronavirus Task Force. If they do, I would leave and go back to my day job, which is trying to develop a vaccine and therapies against COVID-19.
It’s felt like this public affairs wrestling match, with various folks speaking out. Notably, Mitch McConnell came out and said his faith in you is “total,” which is a big thing. But then we saw these pictures of McConnell in the White House with the president, and no one is wearing a mask. I wonder, when you see pictures like that, if you just bang your head against a wall.
No, if I banged my head against the wall for everything I hate or that bothered me, I wouldn’t be speaking to you now. I’m very, very explicit about the fact that I feel masks are really important. And everyone should wear a mask when they’re outside in contact with people. Distance is probably as important as or more important than anything. I will take this opportunity to say we really must emphasize physical distancing and mask usage.
We’re talking on Monday, July 20. How would you describe the state of public health in the United States right now?
We’re being challenged right now. I mean, if you look at the numbers, they don’t lie. We have a situation, particularly in Southern states that over the past several weeks have had a substantial resurgence of cases to record numbers. Cases that ultimately will lead to an increase in hospitalizations, which ultimately will lead to an increase in deaths. That’s what we’re starting to see right now.
You sound alarmed.
It’s something we need to address. Some states, the ones that are most severely affected, certainly have to put a pause on the reopening and maybe take a step or two back and take a look at the things we have to do. And that is: no crowds, close the bars, masks, physical distancing. There’s no doubt, from the scientific data that we and other countries have accumulated over this trying period of several months, that if you do that, we can turn it around. We should not despair, throw our hands up and say, oh, my goodness, this is out of control. We can get it under control. We just need to do certain fundamental things.
I want to look back a little bit because a few months ago, you spoke to a reporter for the New York Times about how your focus was on opening up the right way. You were like, We know if we open up, we’re gonna see the cases go up, and so we need to be prepared for that. But I look at the wait times and the lines for testing in places like Florida and Texas, and I just think, did those preparations happen?
That’s a very good question. If you look at the result of what’s going on, we can say that something did not go right. When I think about things that I said back when we were doing the daily White House press conferences and we were talking about opening America again, when we first introduced the criteria, the phases, you can recall and look at the record of what I said. I said it is important that we all start moving toward reopening the country, getting the economy back, getting employment back. But I also said it is critical we do it in a measured, prudent way. And even when we do it correctly, we have to get the cooperation of the citizens of the cities, of the states, and of the regions that we’re dealing with. You can’t have a situation where you’re trying to prudently open and then you see the pictures and the films and the clips of what we’ve seen, people congregating in crowds, at bars, no masks, no physical distancing. I mean, that’s just the recipe to get into the kind of trouble we’ve gotten into.
Isn’t it that the message they’re getting is also really confused and confusing, potentially?
It’s possible, yes. I think we can’t deny that there are some aspects of mixed messages you’re getting from different local leaders and national leaders. But we’ve got to overcome that. We’ve got to try as best as possible.
I wonder if you look at what’s happening now and are thinking about the fall, because there’s been this idea that the virus could be seasonal, and if we’re keeping the infection rate high, then we’re going to really get walloped when it gets colder.
That is certainly conceivable. One of the issues in this country that has been particularly problematic is if you look at our curve and compare it with the curve, let’s say, of the European Union, in general its cases went way up. But when it brought cases down, it brought them down to essentially a baseline, which means tens and maybe hundreds of cases, not thousands and tens of thousands of cases. If you look at us right now in the summer, our baseline never got down below 20,000 per day. And then over recent weeks, as you well know, we’ve gone up to even 70,000 cases.
Given all that, what should the fall look like? We’re talking so much about schools now because parents are looking at four to six weeks until they would typically be sending their kids to schools.
When you talk about schools, you have to put some general principles in place. And then you’ve got to fashion it to what the local, on-the-ground situation is. I think it’s important that to the best of our ability, within the realm of safety and with attention to the health and the welfare of the children and the teachers, we should try as best as possible to try to get the children back to school, and the schools open. Having said that, we live in a very large country that is very heterogeneous, and there will be counties, regions, cities of our country in which there’s very little activity or viral spread. So you could, with impunity, open up the schools there with no problem. But there are going to be places with a lot of cases now being transmitted. When that occurs, you may need to take a second look and say: Now, wait a minute, if we are going to open, we’re either going to be in such bad shape that we can’t open, or if we are going to open, we’ve got to creatively figure out a way to mitigate the risk of transmission.
I hear what you’re saying. But doing it that way introduces so much room for error because you’re asking individual school districts and principals and superintendents to make this public health call. Is that fair?
No, actually you make a good point. And that’s the reason the CDC has guidelines for that. I’ve spoken to many school district superintendents and principals about the kinds of creative things they can do, and they can be helped by the CDC. One of the things is hybrid: You have part of the day for a class, the other part of the day not for the class. The alternative is physical separating in the class. I know it’s difficult logistically to do that sometimes, but to try to separate the desks, to get children to wear masks depending on their age, to have some of the children be online and do virtual learning and have others in the class. But above everything has to be the safety and the welfare of the children and the teachers.
There was some reporting in the New York Times looking at how we got here, how we got this surge in cases, how the White House made a decision to give more authority to the states and let them make their own choices. We can see now that, for many states, the consequences of that don’t look very pretty. But you’re discussed in that article, and it talked about the fact that every night you were going home and calling public health officials around the country to say what was happening where you are. You did this epidemiology on your own, and I’m wondering why you thought that was important.
The reason I felt it was important is that I am fundamentally a physician and a scientist. I have been in the trenches. I have been in emergency rooms treating patients. I have treated Ebola patients at the NIH. I spent decades in the early part of my career treating desperately ill, HIV-infected individuals. So I’m not just somebody sitting in a room in Washington opining about things. I know what it’s like. So I felt that, since that has been my life experience, let me go out, call up people I know in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, and find out, is there any disconnect in what’s going on on the ground vs. what we perceive is going on as we sit in Washington? And I have found that sometimes the dots don’t get connected and you’ve got to put a little extra effort, because many of the people were telling me that even though there’s a lot of testing, what’s happening is that sometimes you have to wait several days to get results. And when you’re doing contact tracing, if you have to wait several days, then you almost nullify the purpose of contact tracing. What I wanted to find out is, what is the real impact of that testing? That’s the reason I called people up. I’m still having those phone calls.
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