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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 FauciFauci quotes 'The Godfather' in response to latest Trump attacks Overnight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Trump's scorched earth style overshadows campaign's message in final weeks 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 TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study 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 PaulMichigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 Top Democrats introduce resolution calling for mask mandate, testing program in Senate 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 AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci amid Trump criticism Baldwin calls for Senate hearing on CDC response to meatpacking plant coronavirus outbreak 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 RomneyGOP noncommittal about vote on potential Trump-Pelosi coronavirus deal 10 bellwether counties that could signal where the election is headed The Memo: Trump's second-term chances fade 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 ScottLiberals should embrace Trump's Supreme Court nominee Romney slams Trump for refusing to denounce QAnon on national television Graham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' 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.”