By Ken Bredemeier
WASHINGTON - Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said Tuesday that the coronavirus death toll in the United States is "almost certainly higher" than the reported 80,000 figure and warned of serious consequences if cities and states reopen too quickly.
He told a Senate panel investigating the U.S. response to the pandemic that unaccounted numbers of coronavirus victims, especially in the New York City, have died at home without being officially counted in the national death toll, but declined to speculate how many more.
Fauci warned that it is "entirely possible" that the pandemic "could become worse" in the U.S. in the fall months from September to November, but hoped that by then the country "could deal with it" better than it has so far.
President Donald Trump has been prodding businesses and state governors to reopen the world's biggest economy and all but a few of the country's 50 governors have issued orders in recent days to allow some stores, restaurants and offices to resume operations on a limited basis if precautions are taken.
But Fauci, testifying remotely from his home outside Washington, said there "is a real risk you will trigger an outbreak that you will not be able to control" if government guidelines calling for a steady decline in the number of cases over a two-week period are ignored before there is a return to normal life in the U.S.
"The consequences could be dire," he said.
Here Are the Coronavirus Vaccines Undergoing Trial
Vaccines undergoing trials
Fauci said eight coronavirus vaccines are being developed in the U.S.
"If we are successful," he said, "we hope to know that in late fall, early winter."
But he said it was "a bit of a bridge too far" for millions of students returning to colleges and schools across the country in August and September to be vaccinated ahead of attending classes again.
Trump has said there has been widespread coronavirus testing in the U.S., more than in any other country, although some reports say that the U.S. is not among the top 20 countries in the number of tests administered on a per capita basis.
"Our Testing is the BEST in the World, by FAR!" Trump said on Twitter hours before the hearing started. "Numbers (of coronavirus cases) are coming down in most parts of our Country, which wants to open and get going again. It is happening, safely!"
But a frequent critic of Trump, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney from Utah, said at the hearing, "I find our testing rate nothing to celebrate."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chaired the Senate panel while quarantining from his home in Tennessee, said, "We need widespread testing – millions more tests to give Americans enough confidence to go back to work and back to school."
Navy Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, told the lawmakers that 9 million tests for the COVID-19 disease have been administered in the U.S., with more than 1.3 million people testing positively.
He said 240 testing sites are now open in the U.S. and that another 12.9 million people will be tested over the next four weeks. Giroir said there will be a marked increase in the number of tests administered in the coming months, possibly 40 million to 50 million per month by September.
Trump tweeted, "Remember this, every Governor who has sky high approval on their handling of the Coronavirus, and I am happy for them all, could in no way have gotten those numbers, or had that success, without me and the Federal Governments help. From Ventilators to Testing, we made it happen!"
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is in a "modified quarantine" after he came in contact last week with Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary, Katie Miller, who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Three other top U.S. health officials, Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Giroir all also testified via videoconferencing.
Redfield said, "We need to stay vigilant. Social distancing (staying two meters apart from other people) remains imperative."
Democrats attack Trump response
The hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was billed as "COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School." But minority Democrats on the Republican-led panel used it as opportunity to attack the Trump administration's failures to quickly and adequately deal with the spread of the disease as it advanced from China earlier this year.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from the western state of Washington, said, "President Trump has been trying to ignore the facts and experts."
At one point early on this year, Trump assured Americans the disease would soon be gone. Now, more than 80,000 coronavirus deaths have officially been recorded in the U.S. and health experts at the University of Washington are predicting more than 137,000 Americans will die by August.
Fauci has often appeared at White House coronavirus briefings alongside Trump, where he has been in the awkward position of having to contradict the chief executive's rosy projections that the pandemic was under control in the U.S. and that the country could safely resume normal life.