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WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday that had he known a year ago what the death toll from Covid-19 would be, "it would have shocked me completely," and blamed the politicization of safety measures and "mixed messages" out of Washington for the high number of fatalities.
In an interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show on the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak being declared a global pandemic, host Savannah Guthrie noted that Fauci said exactly one year ago that 27 people in the U.S. had died from Covid-19 and asked what he would have thought then of today's death toll of more than 531,000.
“I have to tell you quite honestly, Savannah, it would have shocked me completely,” said Fauci, who recounted that he warned at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing that day that things would get much worse before they get better.
“It was March 11, 2020, that I said that, but I did not in my mind think that ‘much worse’ was going to be 525,000 deaths,” he said.
Asked what went wrong, Fauci pointed to the “divisiveness in our country.”
“Even simple, commonsense public health measures took on a political connotation,” he said. “If you wanted to wear a mask, you were on this side. If you wanted to stay in and avoid congregate settings, you were on this side. It wasn't a pure public health approach. It was really very much influenced by the divisiveness that we had in this country.”
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added that “mixed messages” were coming from Washington — a reference to the contradictions between guidance that he and other public health officials were disseminating and then-President Donald Trump's downplaying of the dangers of the virus.
The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic a year ago Thursday. That night, Trump announced in an Oval Office address the suspension of all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days, a ban that remains in place.
President Joe Biden will mark the anniversary of the pandemic in a prime-time address at around 8 p.m. ET.
Fauci said that he and other health officials are concerned about another possible surge as the “virus is still very much circulating in the community” even as some states reverse their safety restrictions. He warned that people still need to be careful and “at a minimum” wear masks.
He predicted that with the rollout of three Covid-19 vaccines, however, the U.S. will start to see “a big, big difference” as soon as mid- to late summer.