Fauci says US death toll 'going to be very disturbing' and fears 100,000 daily cases

Adam Gabbatt in New York

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, has said the country could see 100,000 new coronavirus cases daily unless action is taken to reverse the epidemic.

Related: Fauci says new US coronavirus cases could hit 100,000 a day in stark warning to Senate – live

Appearing before the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee on Tuesday, Fauci warned that the US is “going in the wrong direction” over handling the coronavirus, and said the death toll “is going to be very disturbing”.

He appeared a day after the White House insisted the outbreak had been reduced to “embers” but the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr Anne Schuchat, insisted: “This is really the beginning.”

Speaking on Capitol Hill, Fauci was asked about the increase in new cases of coronavirus – the US last week reported 40,000 in one day – and whether the pandemic was under control.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” he said. “I’m very concerned, I’m not satisfied with what’s going on, because we’re going in the wrong direction.

“Clearly we’re not in total control.”

Fauci said that without a more robust response, the daily number of cases could more than double.

“I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around,” he said.

Fauci said he could not provide an estimated death toll, but said: “It is going to be very disturbing, I guarantee you that.”

The stark warning came after Schuchat told the Journal of the American Medical Association: “What we hope is that we can take it seriously and slow the transmission. We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.”

She added that there was “a lot of wishful thinking around the country” that the pandemic would be over by the summer.

“We are not even beginning to be over this,” Schuchat said. “There are a lot of worrisome factors about the last week or so.

“We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea, where a new case is rapidly identified and all the contacts are traced, and people are isolated who are sick, and people who are exposed are quarantined and they can keep things under control.”

Testifying before the Senate committee, Fauci said he was “quite concerned about what we are seeing evolve right now in several states” which had moved quickly in attempts to return to normal.

“They need to follow the guidelines that have been very carefully laid out with regard to [reopening] checkpoints. What we’ve seen in several states are different iterations of that, perhaps maybe in some, they’re going too quickly and skipping over some.”

The US represents 4% of the world’s population, but accounts for 25% of all cases and deaths from Covid-19. The US has recorded more than 2.5m cases, with some states seeing record rises.

On Monday, the governor of Arizona ordered bars, movie theaters, gyms and water parks to shut down for a month, weeks after reopening. Texas, Florida and California, all seeing rises in cases, have rolled back reopening efforts. Oregon and Kansas have ordered people to wear masks in public.

Responding to widely shared images of people not following guidelines – including not wearing a mask and gathering in large groups – and especially young people, Fauci said better messaging was required.

Fauci said: “We’ve got to get that message out that we are all in this together and if we’re going to contain this, we’ve gotta contain it together.”

The Senate committee chair, the Republican Lamar Alexander, urged Trump to wear a mask and to depoliticize the topic. He said: “This small, life-saving practice has become part of the political debate that says, if you are for Trump you don’t wear a mask and if you are against Trump you do.”

Alexander continued: “That’s why I’ve suggested that the president occasionally wear a mask. The president has plenty of admirers, they would follow his lead and it would help in this political debate; the stakes are too high for this to continue.”

New daily cases are rising in 38 states, according to NPR’s pandemic tracker, but the White House continues its attempts to downplay the severity of Covid-19. At a briefing on Monday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany ignored the surge.

“The people who are being infected tend to be those – as Vice-President Pence has noted – half of those testing positive are under the age of 35. This means we’re catching people in their communities,” she said.

She added: “We’re aware that there are embers that need to be put out.”

Fauci said on Sunday the US was unlikely to achieve herd immunity to the coronavirus even with a vaccine, given a third of Americans say they would not receive it.

“There is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country – an alarmingly large percentage of people, relatively speaking,” Fauci said, adding that the government has “a lot of work to do” to educate people about vaccines.

Even states where the rate of new infections has decreased are rethinking plans to allow businesses to reopen. New Jersey has postponed plans to allow indoor dining, while the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, said he may reverse plans to allow restaurants and bars to reopen.

Broadway theaters will remain closed until January 2021, an industry group said on Monday. Theaters had planned to reopen in September.