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Fauci: US could have 'saved lives' if social distancing restrictions were enforced earlier

Anthony FauciAnthony Fauci Fauci believes Johnson & Johnson vaccine will get back on track 'quickly' Maxine Waters cuts off Jim Jordan, Fauci sparring at hearing: 'Shut your mouth' Pfizer CEO: Third dose of COVID-19 vaccine 'likely' needed within 1 year MORE, the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert, said Sunday that the U.S. would have saved lives had the country enforced firm social distancing requirements as early as February but noted that those recommendations were met with pushback at the time.

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Fauci addressed a New York Times report that said he and other health experts concluded on Feb. 21 that the Trump administration would need to issue aggressive mitigation measures in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

"As I have said many times, we look at it from a pure health standpoint," Fauci said. "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."

Fauci added that "you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives."

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"Obviously, no one is going to deny that, but what goes into those kinds of decisions is complicated," he said. "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.”

The National Security Council reportedly received intelligence reports in January warning that the COVID-19 outbreak would spread to the U.S. By the third week of February, Robert Kadlec, the top disaster response official at the Health and Human Services Department, convened a meeting on whether officials should lock down the country to prevent an outbreak. The group determined that mitigation measures such as school and business closures were necessary despite the devastating economic implications, the Times noted. 

The White House issued social distancing guidelines, including recommendations against gatherings of more than 10 people, in mid-March. President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE later that month extended those guidelines through the end of April. 

The U.S. has reported more than 530,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and roughly 20,600 deaths caused by it as of Sunday morning, according to a Johns Hopkins University database. 

Asked whether the statistics were the direct result of the late start on mitigation measures, Fauci said that "it isn't as simple as that." While earlier mitigation efforts would have had an impact, Fauci noted that "where we are right now is the result of a number of factors," including the size of the country and the heterogeneity of the country.

"I think it's a little bit unfair to compare us to South Korea, where they had an outbreak in Daegu, and they had the capability of immediately, essentially, shutting it off completely in a way that we may not have been able to do in this country," he said. "So, obviously, it would have been nice if we had a better head start, but I don't think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor." 

The Trump administration has faced continued scrutiny over its handling of the outbreak as state and federal officials raise alarms over testing and medical equipment shortages.

The president on Feb. 28 predicted that the disease would disappear like a "miracle." Asked about those comments last week, Trump said that "the cases really didn’t build up for a while" and that he was trying to avoid stirring panic.