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Coronavirus Update: Public Health Experts Testify Before Senate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In spite of constant pressure from the White House to reopen the country quickly, members of the coronavirus task force warned a Senate committee today that the U.S. still runs the risk of multiple outbreaks. Here's Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren questioning Dr. Anthony Fauci.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: So I'd just like to hear your honest opinion. Do we have the coronavirus contained?

ANTHONY FAUCI: Senator, thanks for the question. Right now it depends on what you mean by containment. If you think that we have it completely under control, we don't.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So that was Dr. Fauci. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, put it this way.

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ROBERT REDFIELD: It's important to emphasize that we're not out of the woods yet. The battle contends in wee months (ph). But we are more prepared. We need to stay vigilant with social distancing. It remains an imperative.

KELLY: Well, with an eye on that ongoing battle, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have proposed $3 trillion in additional economic relief for Americans endangered by the ongoing shutdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: There are those who said, let's just pause. But the families who are suffering know that hunger doesn't take a pause.

CHANG: Well, we will hear more about that bill in a bit. But first, I'm joined by NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Hello to both of you.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Ayesha, let's start with you. Now, this hearing room today looked pretty unusual, obviously, because of social distancing. Can you just give us a sense, a picture of what it looked like?

RASCOE: Many of the key participants in this hearing joined remote remotely, including chairman Senator Lamar Alexander. He was at home because one of his aides recently tested positive for the virus, so he's self-isolating. And his dog Rufus could actually be seen sleeping in the background of Alexander's video. So other senators also joined by video, and so did the three - or so did the witnesses. Three of them had contact with Katie Miller, the press secretary to Vice President Pence...

CHANG: Right.

RASCOE: ...Who tested positive on Friday. So they said they're keeping their distance from people whenever possible.

CHANG: And, Richard, I mean, this hearing - it was billed by some as an opportunity for Dr. Fauci to speak up without having to worry about President Trump trying to pull him back. How did that all play out today?

HARRIS: Well, Dr. Fauci did not disappoint. He doesn't generally pull back. But he - in this - on this occasion, he did offer several blunt reminders that if states move too quickly to relax their measures to control the virus, that will backfire. And he warned that new cases could actually be harmful to the economy and do more harm than good in this effort to reopen the economy. At one point, Senator Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked him about the White House policy that declared meatpacking workers essential. Now, that has put many of them in harm's way and left some of them home and sick and without pay. Here's Dr. Fauci's reply.

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FAUCI: So I would think when you're calling upon people to perform essential services, you really have almost a moral responsibility to make sure they're well taken care of and well-protected. And, again, that's not an official proclamation. That's just me speaking as a physician and as a human being.

RASCOE: But, you know, I think because of the format, it was definitely harder to get some of that, like, true back-and-forth between the lawmakers and the witnesses that you usually see...

CHANG: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...At hearings. There was this one moment when Senator Rand Paul criticized Dr. Fauci in a way that was really a bit personal. Here's Senator Paul.

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RAND PAUL: So I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what's best for the economy. And as much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don't think you're the end-all. I don't think you're the one person that gets to make a decision.

RASCOE: Paul is not alone in his criticism of Fauci and other medical officials about - you know, his comments really show this tension that's building over how soon this country can open up safely. And how do you balance the economic and social concerns with those health concerns? And that's what's been fueling some of these protests, and some people on the right have gone after Dr. Fauci in particular. But here's how Fauci defended himself.

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FAUCI: I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice on this. I'm a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence.

RASCOE: And Fauci made it clear that this country cannot be cavalier about the risk of the virus because so much is still unknown.

CHANG: Right. OK, so that's about reopening the economy. Richard, I want to go to testing now because a lot of the conversation revolved around testing. The White House anticipated that yesterday. It made it a focus of an afternoon briefing. How has the administration been characterizing where it is on testing now?

HARRIS: Right. Well, the White House has been touting the sheer number of tests performed to date as evidence that the U.S. is leading the world in its response. And just yesterday officials once again compared the U.S. testing experience to the experience in South Korea. But, you know, at several points in the hearing, senators pushed back on that, including Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican. Here's what he asked the administration's testing czar, Admiral Brett Giroir.

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MITT ROMNEY: Yesterday you celebrated that we had done more tests per capita even than South Korea. But you ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak while we treaded water during February and March. And as a result, by March 6, the U.S. had completed just 2,000 tests whereas South Korea had conducted more than 140,000 tests.

HARRIS: And Romney also compared fatalities - some 258 in South Korea as of now compared with more than 80,000 deaths here. Giroir did not get a chance to answer.

CHANG: OK. Well, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is also here. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: Hi. So over in the House, Democrats have just introduced a new $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill. That is about as much as they have been spending altogether so far at this point. What's inside this new bill?

SNELL: Yeah. Three trillion dollars is a huge number, and it's a huge number meant to fill the gaps in the four bills that have already passed. It's another round of direct payments. It has hazard pay for essential workers, child care funding, half a trillion dollars for states, $375 billion for local governments, plus money for territories and tribes. Plus, there's also money for rent and mortgage support and an extension of the $600 in federal unemployment benefits. There's a really long list of stuff in here, including testing and tracing funding, money for hospitals and $3.6 billion dollars for elections.

So that's a really long list, and we should be pretty clear up front that this was written entirely by Democrats without any input at all from Republicans. Democrats could maybe pass this out of the House on their own, and there's a pretty good chance that they're working on getting that to happen. There's virtually no chance Republicans will take it up in the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says it's an essential bill right now, though, to address the needs of people who are hurting. And she says that helps address the keys to reopening the government, which, she says, is testing and tracing and making sure that people can go back to work safely and not rush back to work without science at their back.

CHANG: OK. So given that Republicans weren't given a chance to help write this bill, they're already dismissing this bill. What are the prospects of another relief package actually passing Congress?

SNELL: Well, the prospects of a relief package may be different than the prospects of this relief package. They're - Republicans are calling it a wish list. Some are calling it an election year campaign document. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for a pause. He wants to see how the money that was included in that big CARES Act that we already have talked about - how that's all being spent, and he wants to assess the needs later. This is how he described the Democrats' bill today.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: This is not a time for aspirational legislation. This is a time for practical response to the coronavirus pandemic.

SNELL: So you hear there he's not ruling out a future response package. Democrats are saying they need to be aspirational. They need to try to do things to make everybody's lives better. McConnell is saying that if they do do something anytime in the future, it has to include liability reforms for businesses, schools, governments and individuals. Basically, he wants to limit the opportunity for people to sue businesses who are doing their best to comply with social distancing or health care providers, say, who are treating COVID patients.

CHANG: And, Richard, I want to come back to you real quick because, you know, congressional hearings like the one today - they're often used to score political points, to grandstand a little bit. But they're also a place, you know, for lawmakers to ask questions that are on many people's minds. So, Richard, do you have any final thoughts on what we learned today?

HARRIS: Right. Well, I think the most encouraging thing was to hear Dr. Fauci say that he thought that it was actually more likely than not that we'd get a vaccine in the next year or so, and I think that's encouraging. He did have other cautions about that and the drugs and so on, but I think he did leave us with a grain of hope at any rate.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell and White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Thank you to all of you.

SNELL: Thanks.

RASCOE: Thank you.

HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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