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WASHINGTON — The nation’s most prominent public health official said he is worried that the recent widespread protests against police brutality could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases. At the same time, he declined to speculate on whether campaign rallies resumed by President Trump would result in a similar spike.
“You know, I’m concerned. I am,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told Yahoo News about the protests in a conversation that ranged from the 1918 influenza pandemic to the 79-year-old immunologist’s famous running habit.
Though his official title is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, millions of Americans have come to trust and revere the blunt Brooklynite, elevating him to celebrity status.
A leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, Fauci has sometimes angered Trump by straying from the president’s optimistic view on matters. But at least in the case of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Fauci appears to be aligned with those in the president’s camp who say that some media outlets, public health officials and politicians have shied from criticizing the protests, even if just weeks ago those same people were quick to condemn sometimes-armed protesters pushing states to end lockdown restrictions.
Without commenting on the protesters, Fauci observed that the demonstrations contravened virtually all of the social distancing guidelines issued by the White House task force in March. “You’re having crowds, and we recommend not to go in crowds. Physical distancing is impossible,” Fauci told Yahoo News, speaking from a National Institutes of Health boardroom (and thereby depriving the public of views into his much-discussed home office in Washington, D.C.).
“When people get animated, they get involved in the demonstration, they start chanting and shouting and screaming, very often they take their mask off,” Fauci said. In some cities, protest organizers distributed face masks and hand sanitizer to attendees; at the largest gatherings, in Washington and New York, most did seem to be wearing face coverings, which can greatly reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Just how much transmission the protests will produce will become evident in the weeks to come, but Fauci said that reported infections in the D.C. National Guard are an inauspicious sign.
The protests are hardly the only evidence that a locked-down nation has grown restless. Earlier this week, President Trump announced he would be holding his first campaign rally in three months in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19. Attendees will have to sign a waiver abdicating the right to file coronavirus-related suits.
An able politician who has served every president since Ronald Reagan — in whose administration he led the effort to fight HIV/AIDS — Fauci can be forthright and circumspect in the same sentence. A question about Trump’s campaign rallies brought out the latter quality.
“I don’t really want to comment on that,” he said. “It’s not productive.” The reticence seems rooted in the recognition that Trump would likely take any warning about rallies as a slight. Some of the president’s more conspiratorial supporters have long pushed him to dismiss Fauci, manufacturing stories about how the revered immunologist is actually a Democratic plant.
Staying in Trump’s good graces may mean having to stay silent on issues like the upcoming rallies, even though the president’s supporters skew older and, like the president himself, may be reluctant to wear face masks in public. Packing those supporters into an arena could be a public health disaster, as Fauci doubtlessly knows.
(On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “strongly” encouraged the wearing of face masks at high-attendance events, a comment that could in part be a reference to forthcoming Trump campaign rallies.)
The president has been less focused on the public health aspect of the coronavirus pandemic than on its economic effects, which are bound to have ramifications for his reelection prospects. Fauci said that he had what he described as a “nice meeting” with Trump last week. “You don’t have to see the president every day for the president to be interested in it,” he argued, while at the same time acknowledging that Trump is “getting input” from “other components” of his administration.
Governors of both parties have been eager to reopen, with Republican-led states in the Southeast and Southwest generally moving faster than coastal states led by Democrats. But every state has reopened to some degree, and most are expected to continue to do so, even as infection rates in many parts show a troubling rise.
Fauci has a message for states seeking to return to normal: “If you do it, don’t throw all caution to the wind,” he said, adding that governors should insist on face coverings and social distancing measures.
And he has a similar message for ordinary people exhausted by what the coronavirus has wrought. “I feel the same thing,” said Fauci, who was praised by some HIV/AIDS activists for his compassion in the 1980s, when many shunned and condemned victims of the disease. “I lock down when I am not doing duty as a health official,” he added. “And I’m cut off from all kinds of social interactions. I’d love to go to a movie. I’d love to sit down at my favorite restaurant. It’s tough.”
It’s toughest of all, he said, for the millions who have lost jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fauci continues to exercise, though the running is now sometimes speed-walking. On the continuing debate about whether runners should wear masks, Fauci understands why doing so is uncomfortable in the midst of physical exertion. “When you breathe in, it feels like you’re waterboarding yourself,” he joked.
His solution for when he runs through the woodsy upper northwest section of Washington is a hybrid one. “When I see that there’s nobody within a hundred feet of me, I might take it down and breathe regularly,” he admitted.
“When I see people coming — and there are people walking on the street — I put the mask back on. As soon as I pass them, and I’m alone again, I’ll take it down a little. I think that’s reasonable. You don’t have to have it on if there’s nobody around.”
What he won’t tolerate, however, are assertions that the coronavirus is not as serious as public health officials have made it out to be. That argument has been proffered by coronavirus skeptics like Alex Berenson, the former New York Times journalist whose embittered Twitter diatribes against lockdown measures have earned him frequent appearances on Fox News.
“How can you characterize it as anything other than denialism?” Fauci wondered of those who doubt the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 423,000 people worldwide and is the worst viral outbreak since the 1918 influenza.
“To say that this is not a serious situation is just not facing reality,” said Fauci, a veteran not only of the HIV/AIDS fight but also of the battles against Ebola, Zika and other infectious diseases.
He urged a decidedly unglamorous but effective practice: patience.
“Clearly, this is not going to just disappear spontaneously,” Fauci said of the coronavirus. “If this would go away, the way SARS did,” he continued, referring to the deadly respiratory disease that struck in 2003, “then we would just have to gut it out and then it’s going to be gone. But that’s not going to happen.”
It is difficult not to take that as a rebuke of Trump, who repeatedly claimed in the early stages of the pandemic that the virus would “go away.” So far, it has done no such thing.
But just moments later, Fauci evinced an optimism similar to Trump’s. “It is not inevitable that you’re going to have a resurgence. In other words, you may be able to tiptoe into normality.” The difference is that Fauci doesn’t think this normality will appear spontaneously. Instead, it will take discipline on the part of the public and preparation on the part of public health officials.
And so his ultimate message is that even after a difficult spring, now is hardly the time to declare that the coronavirus has been defeated.
“It’s not over yet,” Fauci warned.
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