Health adviser says on CNN ‘you could logically say if you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives’
Martin Pengelly – The Guardian
Prominent US public health adviser Dr Anthony Fauci appeared on Sunday to confirm a bombshell New York Times report which said he and other Trump administration officials recommended the implementation of physical distancing to combat the coronavirus in February, but were rebuffed for almost a month.
Asked on CNN’s State of the Union why the administration did not act when he and other officials advised, Fauci said: “You know … as I have said many times, we look at it from a pure health standpoint. We make a recommendation. Often, the recommendation is taken. Sometimes, it’s not.
“…It is what it is. We are where we are right now.”
CNN host Jake Tapper asked if Fauci thought “lives could have been saved if social distancing, physical distancing, stay-at-home measures had started [in the] third week of February, instead of mid-March”.
“It’s very difficult to go back and say that,” Fauci said. “I mean, obviously, you could logically say, that if you had a process that was ongoing, and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that.
“But what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated. But you’re right. I mean, obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different. But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”
Since the White House issued physical distancing guidelines on 16 March, much of the US has gone into lockdown, shuttering the economy and leading to unprecedented and potentially ruinous unemployment.
Chafing against such conditions in an election year, Donald Trump has voiced an eagerness to reopen the economy as early as 1 May. The president has also said he will listen to advisers if they counsel against such a move.
On Sunday, Fauci, other experts and governors of hard-hit states were skeptical. Phil Murphy, governor of New Jersey, the state with the highest death toll after New York, told CBS’s Face the Nation: “If we start to get back on our feet too soon … we could be throwing gasoline on the fire.”
No White House briefing was scheduled on Sunday but Trump continued to attack the Times and its article, in one tweet appearing inadvertently to confirm it, writing: “the Fake News Opposition Party is pushing, with all their might, the fact that President Trump ‘ignored early warnings about the threat’.”
Trump also claimed vindication regarding his “travel ban” on China. One of his most vocal supporters in the US media, Fox News host Sean Hannity, followed suit.
“Hey [Maggie Haberman],” Hannity tweeted, to one of six reporters on the byline of Saturday’s report. “…You should Thank [Trump] for the Travel Ban(s) put in place while you and [the New York Times] were fixated on impeachment and advising people to travel to China. #NYTimesEpicFail.”
Trump restricted travel from China before travel from Europe. The Times has reported that scientists believe most of the first Covid-19 cases in New York came from Europe, reporting which has prompted presidential tweets.
In reply to Hannity, Haberman wrote: “Weird. Six bylines on our story about how the president handled the growing threat of the coronavirus but just one he’s focused on. Something there but I can’t put my finger on it…”
The only female reporter on the Times article also tweeted footage of Fauci’s remarks.
“This is confirmation of our story,” she wrote, “which focused on various moments the president had to take the threat more seriously and didn’t, in no small part due to the culture of government he’s created.”
Trump has also complained about the Times’ use of anonymous sources. On Sunday, the paper’s executive editor responded.
Dean Baquet told CNN’s Reliable Sources there were some anonymous sources but the story was “based on many on-the-record interviews, documents. There is a tremendous email chain among scientists inside and outside the government where they talk about the growing crisis.
“So, I would suggest that people read it, rather than take the president’s tweet at its word. It is a very well-documented, powerful chapter in understanding why the government was so slow in dealing with this pandemic.”
Baquet also said: “I would hope that the president reads it, because I think his tweet maybe indicates that he had not read it. And I think he will see a very important historic portrait of a government that was slow to deal with crisis.”
The editor was asked about his previous comparison of the coronavirus outbreak and the US government response with the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. In New York, more than three times as many people have died of Covid-19 as died on 9/11.
Baquet said he did not know if the government’s failure regarding the pandemic was of the same magnitude as failing to prevent the attacks on New York, Washington and an airliner which crashed in Pennsylvania.
“I think we have a lot more reporting to do,” he said. “It’s clearly a failure.”