Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been described by The New York Times as “perhaps the nation’s most respected voice during the coronavirus crisis.” However, the 79-year-old has been criticized for frequently changing his recommendations and projections as public health experts learn more about the strain that causes COVID-19. Some media outlets have tried to pit Fauci against the president and, at times, reduced his expertise to politicized guesswork.
Still, Fauci has been a key advisor to the Trump administration since early January, and as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, significantly influenced the president’s response, public opinion, and mitigation policies on the national, state, and local levels. The NY Times wrote in March:
If Dr. Fauci has become the explainer-in-chief of the coronavirus epidemic, it is in part because other government scientists have left a vacuum, avoiding the news media spotlight or being reined in by the Trump administration and accused of exaggerating the threat from the virus. When reporters call Dr. Fauci, he calls them back.
Here are eight times Dr. Fauci revised the national coronavirus narrative.
1) Threat to the United States
On February 17, Dr. Fauci met with the USA Today Editorial Board. The outlet published an article detailing the discussion, headlined: “Top disease official: Risk of coronavirus in USA is ‘minuscule’; skip mask and wash hands.”
As USA Today reported at the time:
Fauci doesn’t want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is “just minuscule.” But he does want them to take precautions against the “influenza outbreak, which is having its second wave.” …
Fauci offered advice for people who want to protect against the “real and present danger” of seasonal flu, which also would protect against the hypothetical danger of coronavirus.
“Wash your hands as frequently as you can. Stay away from crowded places where people are coughing and sneezing. If in fact you are coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth,” he says. “You know, all the things that we say each year.”
Fauci told the editorial board: “If China can contain their outbreak much better than they are and prevent wide distribution, we could avoid a global pandemic. If they don’t, we’re gonna have a global pandemic.”
By that time, the virus had already reached U.S. shores, and over the next month, there had been more than 1,300confirmed infections. The mainstream media turned Dr. Fauci’s assessment of the situation into viral sound bites when he told Congress on March 12 that America’s coronavirus testing system was “failing,” and added, “We’ve got to act like there’s going to be a problem.” Fauci’s testimony led to President Donald J. Trump declaring a national emergency the next day amid criticism that the administration had been too slow in responding to the looming threat.
USA Today’s editorial board asked Fauci about the usefulness of face coverings during that mid-February interview.
“If you look at the masks that you buy in the drug store, the leakage around that doesn’t really do much to protect you,” Fauci said. “People start saying, ‘Should I start wearing a mask?’ Now, in the United States, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to wear a mask.”
At the end of March, Fauci told CNN that the nation’s top health officials were considering changing that recommendation, adding, “Something doesn’t have to be 100% effective to be beneficial.” Fauci said he would “lean toward” the idea “if we do not have the problem of taking away masks from the health care workers who need them.”
A few days later, after the task force obtained new data indicating casual conversations could spread the virus, Fauci said the general public should be wearing cloth masks in addition to physical distancing.
“We were concerned the public health community, and many people were saying this, were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply,” Fauci told The Street earlier this month.
“We also know that simple cloth coverings that many people have can work as well as a mask in many cases,” he continued. “So even though there appears to be some contradiction of ‘You were saying this then, why are you saying this now,’ actually the circumstances have changed, that’s the reason why.”
Q: Are face masks needed?
A: "Absolutely not."
— Spectrum News DC (@SpectrumNewsDC) February 14, 2020
3) Travel Restrictions
In mid-January, Dr. Fauci and other public health experts advising the administration opposed a proposal that would restrict travel from China, where the virus had originated.
Travel restrictions were usually counterproductive to managing biological outbreaks because they prevented doctors and other much-needed medical help from easily getting to the affected areas, the health officials said. And such bans often cause infected people to flee, spreading the disease further.
But according to the Times, Dr. Fauci and others phoned Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar on the morning of January 30, “saying they had changed their minds.”
The next day, President Donald J. Trump announced restrictions that barred non-U.S. citizens from traveling from China, although there were several exceptions. The Times later called the move “the first substantive step to impede the spread of the virus.”
Fauci would go on to support another travel ban on foreign nationals from certain European nations. The Washington Post reported he “argued that it was critical to close off any path the virus might take into the country.” The policy saved lives, Fauci would later reportedly say.
4) Social Distancing
Dr. Fauci appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on February 29 and told its audience, “At this moment, there is no need to change what you are doing on a day to day basis. Right now the risk is still low, but that could change.” Despite acknowledging the U.S. was having “the beginnings of what’s called ‘community spread,’” Fauci said it was still safe to go to the movies, shop at malls, and work out in gyms.
But the outbreak would worsen in Europe as countries like Italy and Spain imposed national lockdowns. On March 16, Fauci stood with President Trump as he announced aggressive social distancing guidelines for stopping the spread of novel coronavirus. Those recommendations called on Americans to avoid gatherings of more than ten people, avoid discretionary travel, work from home when possible, and to stay away from nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that while some people may perceive the guidelines as inconvenient or going too far, they reflect a deteriorating assessment of the containment efforts and should be taken seriously.
“When you’re dealing with an emerging infectious diseases outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are if you think that today reflects where you really are. That’s not word speak. It means if you think you’re here,” Fauci said, gesturing to illustrate his point, “you’re really here because you’re only getting the results. Therefore, it will always seem that the best way to address it would be to be doing something that looks like it might be an overreaction. It isn’t an overreaction.”
5) Projected U.S. Death Toll
Dr. Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper on March 29 that there could be 100,000 to 200,000 deaths related to coronavirus in the United States.
The estimate was repeated by several media outlets, some of which focused on Fauci’s worst-case scenario without presenting the information in proper context.
“I just don’t think that we really need to make a projection when it’s such a moving target, that you could so easily be wrong and mislead people,” Fauci went on to elaborate in the same CNN interview.
Dr. Anthony Fauci says there could potentially be between 100,000 to 200,000 deaths related to the coronavirus and millions of cases. “I just don’t think that we really need to make a projection when it’s such a moving target, that you could so easily be wrong,” he adds. #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/F2MOHY3xl4
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) March 29, 2020
Two days later, at a White House briefing, Fauci cited another model predicting up to 240,000 American deaths.
“As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it,” Fauci said at the time. “We have to brace ourselves. In the next several days to a week or so we are going to continue to see things go up.”
Then within two weeks, on April 9, he revised those estimates again during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.
“I believe we’re going to see a downturn in that, and it looks more like the 60,000 [range] than the 100,000 to 200,000,” Fauci said, crediting widespread mitigation efforts. “I think the American public have done a really terrific job just buckling down and doing those physical separations and adhering to those guidelines.”
The U.S. coronavirus death count recently surpassed 120,000, according to an NBC News tally.
Fauci told the Washington Post: “I am skeptical about models, even though they are helpful in some respects, because I’ve said often and it’s work repeating, models [are] only as good as the assumptions that you put into the model, and the assumptions change based on real data.”
6) Second Wave
On April 29, Dr. Fauci claimed a second wave of COVID-19 infections was “inevitable” in the United States.
“If by that time we have put into place all of the countermeasures that you need to address this, we should do reasonably well,” Fauci had said. “If we don’t do that successfully, we could be in for a bad fall and a bad winter.”
— Souad Mekhennet (@smekhennet) April 30, 2020
But conditions evolved, and Fauci appeared on CNN a month later and changed the narrative again.
“We often talk about the possibility of a second wave or of an outbreak when you’re reopening. We don’t have to accept that as an inevitability,” Dr. Fauci said. “It could happen, but it is not inevitable.”
He went on to explain that the chance of a resurgence in the virus is contingent on states opening “correctly.”
— Daily Wire (@realDailyWire) May 28, 2020
Fauci reiterated that assessment on June 13, again telling CNN: “It is not inevitable that you will have a so-called ‘second wave’ in the fall or even a massive increase if you approach it in the proper way.”
He said the public should continue to wear face coverings and respect physical distancing recommendations to avoid a second spike.
Then last week, Dr. Fauci acknowledged, “In many respects, we’re still in the first wave,” after several states set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations.
7) Moving the Goalposts to Reopen
In early March, Dr. Fauci emphasized that Americans needed to take extreme measures to reduce the rate of coronavirus infections to avoid overwhelming hospitals.
“What we need to do is flatten that down,” he said. “You do that with trying to interfere with the natural flow of the outbreak.”
Fauci predicted it would take “at least several weeks” to flatten the curve, easing the burden on emergency rooms and the healthcare system.
Breaking News: Dr. Anthony Fauci plans to warn the Senate on Tuesday that if the U.S. reopens too quickly, Americans will face “needless suffering and death.”https://t.co/aMl7ZhheGc pic.twitter.com/KpiVRM5z0W
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 12, 2020
Then last month, as the national infection curve appeared to be flattening, Fauci warned about “the danger of trying to open the country prematurely,” cautioning that if states move too soon, it would “result in needless suffering and death.”
The New York Times reported:
Dr. Fauci was referring to a three-phase White House plan, Opening Up America Again, that lays out guidelines for state officials considering reopening their economies. Among its recommendations: States should have a “downward trajectory of positive tests” or a “downward trajectory of documented cases” of coronavirus over two weeks, while conducting robust contract tracing and “sentinel surveillance” testing of asymptomatic people in vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes.
But many states are reopening without meeting those guidelines, seeking to ease the economic pain as millions of working people and small-business owners are facing ruin while sheltering at home.
Public health experts insist physical distancing and other mitigation efforts are crucial until scientists can create a deployable vaccine.
“The whole process is going to take a year, year-and-a-half at least,” Fauci told reporters in early March.
However, the Trump administration launched Operation Warp Speed last month in hopes of accelerating that timetable while maintaining safety standards. Fauci said he is encouraged by ongoing trials of multiple vaccine candidates currently under development.
“I think it is conceivable if we don’t run into things that are, as they say, unanticipated setbacks, that we could have a vaccine that we could be beginning to deploy at the end of this calendar year, December 2020 or into January 2021,” Fauci recently told NPR.
Fauci’s critics say he’s been wrong about almost everything, and his projections are all over the map. For some Americans, the media spotlight on Fauci has created an exaggerated perception of his role in the coronavirus response. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told Fauci during a congressional hearing last month that he doesn’t consider him the “end-all” authority on everything COVID-19.
Fauci responded that he “never made (himself) out to be the end-all and only voice in this,” adding, “I’m a scientist, a physician, and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence.”
“I don’t give advice about economic things,” he continued. “I don’t give advice about anything other than public health.”