Five takeaways as Senate panel hears from Fauci, Trump health officials

Four members of the White House coronavirus task force were grilled by the Senate Health Committee Tuesday in the body’s first major hearing since the novel coronavirus ravaged the country.

The virus has led to more than 81,000 deaths and more than 1.3 million cases, and has also shut down the economy, triggering fears about Great Depression-level joblessness.

Here are five takeaways from what was a must-watch hearing.

Fauci issued a clear warning on reopening too quickly 

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciTrump's focus scattered amid multiple crises SC beach linked to hundreds of coronavirus cases as it braces for 4th of July tourists The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus MORE, who over the past few months has become the nation’s preeminent health voice on the crisis, warned that states reopening too early could face “really serious” public health and economic consequences. 

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak,” said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

He warned states that move too quickly might not be able to control new outbreaks, risking “suffering and death” and a longer road to recovery.

Fauci, who polls show is trusted more than the president when it comes to the coronavirus, did not name any specific states, and credited “many” state governments with moving at an “appropriate pace.”

He warned that, even in the best of circumstances, cases will appear and good testing, contact tracing and the isolation of people who get COVID-19 will be necessary.

Fauci’s comments go against the grain with the White House, which has pressed for the nation to reopen amid a recession that threatens President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE’s reelection.

But the health official, who has become a celebrity during the crisis and was recently played by Brad Pitt in a “Saturday Night Live” parody, offered his remarks in a measured way, taking care not to criticize the White House and repeatedly urging states to follow guidelines endorsed by the president.

There were few skirmishes during the hearing, though Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Rand Paul urges Fauci to provide 'more optimism' on coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.) said that while he respected Fauci, “I don’t think you’re the end all.”

“So I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what’s best for the economy,” Paul said. “I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision. We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side saying there’s not going to be a surge and that we can safely open the economy and the facts will bear this out.”

Fauci responded that he had “never made myself out to be the end all and only voice in this.”

“I'm a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence,” he added.

Republicans call for more testing 

GOP senators called for more testing in a sign that some Republicans do not agree with the White House’s assessment that everything is fine with the nation’s testing regimen.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDoug Jones cuts pro-mask campaign ad: 'Our health depends on each other' Trump says he's 'all for masks' despite reluctance to wear one The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, said while it is “impressive” the U.S. has completed more than 9 million COVID-19 tests, many more are needed.

“Vaccines and treatments are the ultimate solutions but until we have them, all roads back to work and back to school go through testing,” he said. “This will require millions more new tests, many of them new technologies.” 

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOvernight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators aim to limit Trump's ability to remove troops from Germany Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November MORE (Utah), the only Republican to vote for Trump’s impeachment, was more critical. “I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever,” he said.

“I understand that politicians are going to frame data in a way that's most positive politically. Of course I don't expect that from admirals,” Romney said to Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Both Giroir and Trump asserted Monday at a White House press conference that the U.S. has done more than twice the rate of testing per capita than was achieved in South Korea. 

“The fact is their test numbers are going down, down, down now because they don't have the kind of outbreak we have,” Romney said of South Korea. 

Giroir said the U.S. should have the ability to conduct 40 million to 50 million tests per month by September, if necessary. 

Fauci warns a vaccine won’t be ready this fall

A vaccine will not be ready in time to play a role in school reopenings, Fauci said, though he voiced cautious optimism there will be a vaccine relatively soon. 

Alexander asked Fauci what he would tell the chancellor of the University of Tennessee about what will be in place to allow thousands of students to safely return in August.

“In this case the idea of having treatments available, or a vaccine, to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term, would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci said. 

Overall, however, Fauci said efforts to develop a vaccine are moving far faster than ever before.

Asked by Romney if getting a vaccine in the next year or two is a “long shot,” Fauci replied: “It's definitely not a long shot; I would think that it's more likely than not that we will.”

Republicans ready to open the economy, but at different speeds 

GOP senators made it clear they believe the economies in their states are ready to reopen, though some appeared ready to move much more quickly than others. 

While Paul was at one end of the spectrum in pressing for an early opening, Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday If only woke protesters knew how close they were to meaningful police reform Officials couldn't reach Trump on golf course to delete retweet of video showing man chanting 'white power': report MORE (R-S.C.) struck a pragmatic tone about the decisions his state is making.

“When we set out to flatten the curve by taking aggressive unprecedented measures like staying at home orders and mass small business closures, we didn't set out with a goal of preventing 100 percent fatalities. That would be unrealistic," Scott said. 

His description of his state's efforts to contain its outbreak drew praise from Fauci.

“You have put things in place that I think would optimize your capability of reopening, and obviously, as I was thinking as you were speaking, I almost want to clone that and make sure other people hear about that,” Fauci said. 

Virtual hearing illustrates pros, cons

Dogs barking, a glitching internet and the head of the Food and Drug Administration speaking in front of a blurry white backdrop: the Health Committee's first major hearing since the pandemic began was a microcosm of the pros and cons of a virtual workplace that Americans across the country are all too familiar with.

All of the government's witnesses testified remotely after coming into contact with a White House aide who tested positive for COVID-19. Alexander led the hearing from home, after one of his staff tested positive. 

Only a handful of senators were in the hearing room, sitting six feet apart from each other. Almost all of them were wearing masks or face coverings at some point. The rest were either in their offices or in their homes. There was no room for the public.

Alexander made it clear that videoconference witness testimony was a one-time happening, but it was clear that even in Congress, life was far from “normal.”