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Anthony Fauci, MD, told a Senate committee today that the United States could soon see as many as 100,000 cases of COVID-19 a day if the nation does not figure out how to stem the current rising tide of new infections.
“I’m very concerned about what’s going on right now,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who spoke at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, along with Robert Redfield, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Stephen M. Hahn, MD, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Admiral Brett P. Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“I’m not satisfied with what’s going on because we’re going in the wrong direction,” Fauci said, adding, “Clearly, we are not in total control right now.”
A spike in cases in a handful of states “puts the entire country at risk,” not just those areas, Fauci said. “We are now having 40,000-plus cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 cases a day if this does not turn around.”
He said it was worrisome that people continued to congregate, often without masks, and that some were “jumping over and avoiding and not paying attention to the guidelines” issued by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
“We’re going to continue to be in a lot of trouble and there’s gonna be a lot of hurt if that does not stop,” Fauci said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked Fauci if he could predict how many deaths the nation could expect as a result. He said he could not give an estimate, but added, “it will be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that.”
Vaccine Distribution, Hesitancy
The senators asked Fauci and the other federal officials in attendance about prospects for a vaccine and how it might be fairly distributed. Some also said they were concerned about the possibility of a number of Americans refusing to take a vaccine if it were available.
Fauci continued to say he was cautiously optimistic that a vaccine could be developed by the beginning of 2021, but noted that there are still many questions about COVID-19 immunity that will complicate the true efficacy picture for any potential vaccine.
He also said it was important to address hesitancy issues. The National Institutes of Health-sponsored vaccine trials will enroll 30,000 or more individuals each, and the government has a “community engagement” program already operating and embedded within each site, Fauci said.
He said he and others were aware of “a lack of trust in authority, a lack of trust in government, and a concern about vaccines in general,” in particular among communities who “have not been fairly treated by the government,” which he said included African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans.
Redfield told the senate committee that the CDC has been working months to increase vaccine acceptance. “We’re working hard to reach out particularly to groups that have been underrepresented to try to build that confidence in vaccination,” he said.
The fall will be especially difficult when influenza and the novel coronavirus are circulating in parallel, said Redfield, who noted that less than half of Americans get a flu vaccine each year.
Vaccine makers have committed to making 189 million doses of flu vaccine for this upcoming fall and winter, he said. The CDC has purchased 7.1 million doses — compared with its usual 500,000 — to make available to states to provide to uninsured adults, Redfield said.
He said the agency had also “augmented” its commitment to the Vaccines for Children Program, “anticipating that more children will qualify in light of the unemployment.”
Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) expressed concern that a COVID-19 vaccine might be approved too quickly because of political pressure. She said she was worried about “some sort of October surprise” such as an approval announcement, just before the presidential election.
The FDA’s Hahn told the senators that the agency had issued new guidance on vaccine safety and effectiveness requirements the morning of the hearing.
“I want the American people to hear me when I say we will use the science and data from those trials and we will ensure that our high levels of standards for safety and efficacy are met,” Hahn said.
Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.