WASHINGTON – Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, plans to tell a Senate committee on Tuesday that the country risks “needless suffering and death” if states open up too quickly, he told The New York Times late Monday evening.
"If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to: 'Open America Again,' then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country," Fauci said in an email to the Times, referring to the federal government's plan for states to re-open. "This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal."
Fauci's planned testimony will fuel a hearing where senators will finally get a chance Tuesday to face off over the effectiveness of the Trump administration's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, in what could be one of the only public hearings featuring members of the White House's coronavirus task force.
The hearing will be Democrats’ first opportunity since March to question leading medical experts -- including Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield -- about the Trump administration’s response.
"The fact of the matter is, President (Donald) Trump has been more focused on fighting against the truth, than fighting this virus — and Americans have sadly paid the price," Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, plans to say Tuesday, according to excerpts of her opening statement.
"Since this Committee last heard from these witnesses on March 3rd, we have seen over 900 deaths in my home state of Washington, over 80,000 deaths nationally, and the numbers continue to climb," Murray plans to say. "Still, President Trump is trying to ignore the facts, and ignore the experts who have been clear we are nowhere close to where we need to be to reopen safely."
The hearing -- in which committee leaders and all four government witnesses will be appearing remotely via video conference -- comes as states across the country have started taking actions to roll back the business closures and stay-at-home orders that were put in place two months ago to try to slow the coronavirus infection rate, though the outbreak is far from over.
Three of the witnesses and the committee's chairman -- for a hearing titled "Covid-19: Safely getting back to work and school" -- are appearing remotely because they're self-isolating or self-quarantining after contact with individuals who tested positive for coronavirus.
The hearing is likely to further illustrate the divide within the country between Republicans and Democrats over their views on the pandemic, how the administration has handled the crisis and the best path forward amid warnings from public health experts that positive cases could surge if stay-at-home orders are rolled back too quickly.
Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and other Republicans on the panel view Tuesday's hearing as a showcase for what the administration has been working on, and they hope the reputations of scientists like Fauci will lend credibility to the work that is occurring, according to a source familiar with their thinking.
Fauci has become one of the Trump administration's leading -- and most credible -- voices during the pandemic as a career public health official leading National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been willing to break with Trump on issues like testing and rolling back stay-at-home orders.
Democrats are hopeful that Fauci will give the public his honest assessment Tuesday -- even if it means criticizing the President.
"This will be one of the first opportunities for Dr. Fauci to tell the American people the unvarnished truth without the President lurking over his shoulder," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday.
"Dr. Fauci, let it rip," he added.
Democrats likely to question why experts' opinions cast aside
A wide range of issues are likely to be raised at Tuesday's hearing.
Murray plans to ask the officials about reports the White House has interfered with recommendations from public health experts, the federal government’s efforts to ramp up testing and how the administration is planning ahead for how it would distribute a coronavirus vaccine, according to an aide. And Democrats are sure to raise the whistleblower complaint from Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted director of the office involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine who charged he was removed for expressing caution toward a treatment favored by Trump.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican on the committee, said his chief concern is schools and the federal government's plan for getting them reopened in the fall. "I've not seen a plan on how we reopen schools. So that's my concern," Cassidy told CNN Monday.
And Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said he plans to question the witnesses on why the US has "done so much worse" than other countries in dealing with the pandemic and "what does that suggest for the next steps we need to take?"
"We have a president telling the American public they need to be warriors and get out in the midst of all the danger, when the nation's chief health officials are trying to make the right decisions about their own health," Kaine said.
The hearing could be one of Democrats' only chances to question Fauci and other senior officials after the White House has said they would make limited exceptions to a policy that officials on the White House's task force should be spending their time combating coronavirus, not testifying before Congress.
Asked last week why he wouldn't allow Fauci to testify before the House Appropriations Committee, Trump said: "Because the House is a setup. The House is a bunch of Trump haters."
Witnesses have been prepping remotely
In addition to Fauci and Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Adm. Brett Giroir, the Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, are testifying at Tuesday's hearing. Aides from the White House legislative affairs office, as well as the HHS legislative affairs office, are working with the witnesses ahead of the hearing.
Giroir gave a presentation at the White House on Monday during Trump's press conference touting US coronavirus testing capabilities.
"No matter how you look at it, America is leading the world in testing," he said. "No other country in the world comes close in terms of total numbers."
All four witnesses will be testifying remotely, and Alexander and Murray will also be appearing via video conference. Hahn and Redfield are both self-isolating due to their contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, and Fauci has said he will observe a “modified quarantine” after what he described as “low-risk” contact with Katie Miller, Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary who tested positive last week.
A person familiar with the hearing prep said the White House and Health and Human Services aides helping the four witnesses get ready are doing so remotely -- they are not conducting in-person prep sessions, given that three of the four witnesses are in some form of isolation.
Alexander is self-quarantining for 14 days after a staffer in his office tested positive for coronavirus. Alexander worked with his staff Monday to ensure that he's comfortable with the remote technology the committee will be using on Tuesday.
Alexander said in a statement Sunday that he spoke with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about granting an exception for Tuesday’s hearing to the administration’s policy about officials not testifying remotely.