Fauci Warns House on Coronavirus: ‘It Is Going to Get Worse’

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WASHINGTON — Top federal health officials warned lawmakers on Wednesday that the coronavirus would continue spreading rapidly in the United States, and said Americans needed to immediately reorganize their lives to prevent further spread. The National Basketball Association should bar audiences from its games, one of them said.

“We have got to assume it is going to get worse and worse and worse,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, adding that Americans should not assume the virus will die off in warmer weather, as President Trump has repeatedly said.

The message was another sign of the alarm and urgency health officials have tried to convey at the same time that the White House and Mr. Trump have tried delivering reassurances of calm and containment. Mr. Trump said on Tuesday that the virus will “go away,” has compared it to the flu and referred to the number of confirmed infections as low.

Soon after the hearing recessed, the World Health Organization said the coronavirus now qualifies as a global pandemic, confirming what many epidemiologists have been saying for weeks.

“We must be much more serious as a country about what we might expect,” Dr. Fauci told lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “We cannot look at it and say, ‘Well, there are only a couple of cases here, that’s good.’ Because a couple of cases today are going to many, many cases tomorrow.”

Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that “this is the time for everyone to get engaged.”

The hearing before an already polarized committee quickly devolved into a partisan fight over the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Democrats ripped into top health officials and pleaded with them to be frank, even if Mr. Trump was not. Republicans defended the president and accused Democrats of making political hay when unity was needed.

“The 24/7 criticism the president is undergoing is unwarranted at a minimum,” said Representative Mark Green, Republican of Tennessee.

Democrats on the committee hit back.

“We will not be lectured about politicization, and all of your words and sanctimony will not cover up the fact that this administration was not prepared for this crisis and put lives, American lives, at risk,” Representative Gerald Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, snapped, waving a photo of Mr. Trump touring the Atlanta headquarters of the C.D.C. wearing his signature campaign hat.

“He was more concerned about what was happening on the stock market than he seemed to be concerned about American public health,” Mr. Connolly said of Mr. Trump. “And that’s shameful, and you can’t cover that up.”

The tension on Wednesday came amid significant financial turmoil, as stocks on Wall Street tumbled again, with the S&P 500 falling more than 2 percent in early trading. The Treasury Department is considering delaying tax payments beyond the April 15 deadline, according to a person familiar with the plans, as taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service brace for economic disruption from the spread of the coronavirus.

The number of known coronavirus cases in the United States passed 1,000 on Tuesday night, more than a quarter of which were announced on Tuesday, a sign of how rapidly the disease is spreading in at least 38 states and Washington, D.C. Dr. Redfield announced at the hearing that 31 people in the United States have died as a result of the virus.

Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts, where there are almost 100 confirmed cases of the virus, pleaded with Dr. Fauci to speak out about the threat it poses.

“You should be forthright,” he said, adding, “Standing behind him and nodding silently with an eye roll once in a while is not going to get it.”

Dr. Fauci responded testily, “I have never ever held back telling exactly what is going on from a public health standpoint.”

In fact, Dr. Fauci took some of his most direct swipes at the White House since the outbreak began. When Mr. Connolly asked him about the 2018 eradication of the global health unit on the White House’s National Security Council, he answered, “It would be nice if the office was still there.”

He sought to rebut the claim — repeated often by Mr. Trump — that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu or previous outbreaks, such as the H1N1 flu strain.

“People always say, ‘Well, the flu does this, the flu does that.’ The flu has a mortality of 0.1 percent. This has a mortality of 10 times that,” Dr. Fauci said.

He also indicated that the N.B.A. should take immediate measures to keep crowds away from its games, something the league has said it is considering. “We would recommend that there not be large crowds. If that means not having any people in the audience as the N.B.A. plays, so be it,” he said.

The N.B.A. has notified teams to make plans in case “it were to become necessary to play a game with only essential staff present,” meaning without fans or reporters. On Tuesday, the Ivy League canceled its conference basketball tournaments because of the coronavirus, and large business meetings and festivals have been canceled or postponed around the nation.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington was expected to ban events in the Seattle area above 250 people to ward off the continued spread of the virus in the state, which has seen one of the most lethal outbreaks.

Lawmakers blasted the Trump administration for delays and manufacturing snags in distributing tests to laboratories across the country, where state health labs have been desperate for more of them to keep up with the surge of patients.

“We’re supposed to be leading the world. Instead, we are trailing far behind,” said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, the committee’s chairwoman, referring to the vast number of those tested in South Korea, where more than 100,000 people have been checked for the virus. “We didn’t even test a fraction of that number. Why did it take so long?”

Representative Jim Cooper, Democrat of Tennessee, asked Dr. Redfield if there were plans for drive-through testing — a model South Korea has deployed — so emergency rooms would not become panicked if someone entered with a cough.

“We’re trying to maintain the relationships between individuals and their health care providers,” Dr. Redfield said.

Mr. Cooper then accused Dr. Redfield of appearing to say that “the professional monetary relationship comes before public health.”

The hearing had a sharper tone than others, in part because two members of the committee — Representatives Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who was recently named White House chief of staff, and Paul Gosar, Republican of Arizona — were not attending because they were in self-quarantine. Both lawmakers announced they had potentially come into contact with a person infected by the virus at a conservative political conference.

Mr. Trump began negotiations with Congress on Tuesday for an emergency relief package, with the president calling for a temporary elimination of payroll taxes that could cost nearly $700 billion, rivaling the financial bailout of 2008.

Members from both parties oppose the plan, but some believe it could be included in a broader package that deals with sick pay, unemployment benefits and food assistance. Financial markets rallied on news of the talks.

Alan Rappeport and Katie Rogers contributed reporting.



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