WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials painted a dire picture of the novel coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, warning members of Congress that the public health crisis is far from over.
“Is the worst yet to come?” House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
“Yes,” Fauci told her. “It’s going to get worse.” He added, “We will see more cases and things will get worse than they are now.”
Fauci testified at a U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday as health officials around the country scrambled to contain the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Shortly after Fauci’s testimony, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
By Wednesday morning, there were at least 1,015 cases of coronavirus in the United States confirmed by lab tests and 31 deaths, according to a New York Times database.
Republicans on the committee praised the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the committee, urged Congress to “continue to support the Trump administration and its work to protect the health and safety of the American people.”
Jordan urged his colleagues to “not play politics with the coronavirus.” He cited Vice President Mike Pence saying, “the risk to the American people of contracting the coronavirus remains low.”
Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) also lauded the administration’s early response to the outbreak, including travel restrictions, asking whether the situation would have been worse without those actions.
“I believe we would be in a worse position, sir, but … we need to do a lot more,” Fauci said.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the positive actions that have been taken in response to the virus have been overlooked “because of the direct criticism of the president, which I think is totally unwarranted.” She said it’s important to “explain the facts, but also not scare everybody about this problem, but ask them to be sensible about what they’re doing.”
‘We do not know what this virus is going to do’
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s top public health officials suggested there’s still a great deal of uncertainty around the future of the outbreak in the United States.
Asked by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) about Trump’s claim that warmer weather would slow the spread of the disease, Fauci noted that cases of influenza and other common cold viruses do go “way down” in the spring.
“For someone to at least consider that that might happen is reasonable,” Fauci said. “But — underline but — we do not know what this virus is going to do. We would hope that as we get to warmer weather it would go down. But we can’t proceed under that assumption. We’ve got to assume that it’s going to get worse, and worse and worse.”
Fauci cited a quote attributed to hockey star Wayne Gretzky: “You skate not to where the puck is, but to where the puck is going to be. … Even in areas of the country where there are no or few cases, we’ve got to change our behavior.”
Chief among the behavior changes already seen nationwide is the cancelling of large gatherings. The city of Austin, Texas, last week said it was cancelling its annual South by Southwest event, and the annual Coachella music festival in Southern California was delayed until the fall.
In Arizona, CNN and the Democratic National Committee said yesterday that the March 15 Democratic presidential debate in Phoenix would continue, but without an audience or attending media. And U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, cancelled two town halls scheduled for this month. O’Halleran’s move came after U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, placed himself under self-quarantine because he had “extended contact” with a person who has since been diagnosed with COVID-19. He wrote on Twitter Tuesday that he remains symptom-free and expects to end his quarantine Thursday.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said that the Trump administration “was not prepared for this crisis” and “has put lives at risk, American lives at risk.”
He added, “We aren’t the ones that called the alarms being raised about this pandemic as fake news. That came out of the president of the United States’ mouth.”
Trump tweeted earlier this month, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant. Surgeon General, ‘The risk is low to the average American.’”
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