Fauci shuns Trump’s politicization of COVID-19 science to focus on ‘public health message’

In this file photo, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, April 13, 2020.

America’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, says right now the globe isn’t doing as well as he’d hoped in fighting the pandemic. Like many other experts and laypeople alike, he worries about the politicization of public health.

Fauci tells The World host Marco Werman that President Donald Trump’s use of his words in a campaign ad was “inappropriate,” but that he has no recourse to undo the misleading message. 

As the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci is also a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

On Tuesday morning, Trump criticized Fauci in a tweet, saying, “Tony’s pitching arm is far more accurate than his prognostications,” referring to the doctor’s botched first pitch at Opening Day in July for the Washington Nationals. And commentators are once again speculating about whether Fauci could quit or be fired.

Marco Werman: The weather is getting colder, the days shorter and COVID-19 cases are ticking up around the globe. Looks like we’re settling in for a long, dark winter here in the Northern Hemisphere. What are you optimistic about, and what’s really giving you pause at this moment in the pandemic?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: I’m having more pause than optimism at this point, for the simple reason that the numbers are not actually in our favor. I was hoping that as we entered the cooler months of the fall and the colder months of the winter, that we would have a much lower baseline of daily infections in the United States. And, you know, we were stuck at around 40,000 new cases per day for a while. And now it’s actually going up. It’s between 40 and 50,000 per day. And if you look at the map of the United States, there are so many regions that are starting to see upticks in the test positivity, which, in the past, has been a pretty good and ominous predictor that you’re going to have an upsurge of cases.

Dr. Fauci, you’re concerned about the numbers going up now. Wasn’t this cold-weather trend predicted? Should we really be surprised that the numbers are going up now — not just here in the US, — but in many parts of Europe?

You could anticipate that if you do not put the extra effort into public health measures to control upticks, then they’re going to get out of hand. You would expect that there would be an uptick as people go indoors. But what we had hoped for is that those upticks would not turn into substantial surges.

Related: Fauci on slowing COVID-19: People ‘can’t think of themselves in a vacuum’

So, when you look around the globe, we’re seeing a new death from COVID-19 every 10 to 15 seconds somewhere in the world. What concerns you most when you look across the planet? What trends do you see that you worry may end up here in the US?

What I see is exactly what you’re referring to. In the Northern Hemisphere, countries that originally got hit, then went down to a good baseline and did well — like many of the European Union countries, the UK, some of the Asian countries. After an initial really difficult time, they all seemed to have things under pretty good control. But now, as the weather gets cooler simultaneously with trying to open up the economy, we’re seeing these upticks of global cases throughout the world. And unfortunately, we’re starting to see that here.

So, somehow wearing masks, fighting this disease became a partisan issue. And now, a lot of the battle seems to be about winning the public’s trust. You had a trust issue with AIDS activists in the ’80s, but ultimately you won many of them over. Do lessons from your experience then work now — winning the hearts and minds of Americans or people at the White House, who might think you have a political agenda?

Yes, absolutely. There’s lessons to learn from that. When you’re dealing with the community, you’ve got to be transparent with them and you’ve got to be very consistent. You know, unfortunately, we haven’t had a total consistency in the messaging. And I think the point that you brought up [is right]. The wearing of masks became more of a political issue where there were, you know, those in favor and those against. It became almost an ideological thing as opposed to what it really is. It’s a public health issue. It doesn’t know politics. The common enemy is the virus. So, it really doesn’t make any sense if you have a political divide about whether you should be wearing a mask or not. It has nothing at all to do with politics. I mean, people do not like to be told what to do, but sometimes just common sense of looking at what’s going on around you when you see upsurges of infections should be enough to get people to realize. Things that are not that difficult to do and shouldn’t be steeped in politics or ideological divide really need to be done. It’s not that much of a big deal to do these public health measures.

Well, to that point, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. William Foege, who led the CDC under Democrats and Republicans, has called on its current director, Dr. Robert Redfield, to stand up to a bully. Many scientists at the CDC have said they’ll look for another job if President Trump is reelected. What are your concerns about what you’re seeing of the CDC and what its future looks like?

The CDC is really a great organization. Historically, they have been in so many respects — and still are — the leading public health agency in the world. That’s the thing that they do. They do disease surveillance and disease control. And they have been the group that has led us, in many respects, through serious outbreaks that we’ve had all the way going back in my own history to HIV/AIDS and Ebola and Zika and pandemic flu. So, we’d like to see them reassume their position of being a very articulate and vocal defender of public health measures, which they can. They have very good people down there.

What would happen if there were mass resignations at the CDC? I mean, what’s the ripple effect practically? Who would help other countries with outbreaks? Who would actually write the weekly morbidity report?

I know almost all of the people down there. I think many of them are frustrated, but I don’t really see in the cards mass resignations. I think that they’re going to transcend politics and continue to do their job, which they do very well.

Related: Fauci: ‘We’ve got to do something’ about the coronavirus numbers

Dr. Fauci, let me ask you about your being featured in a new campaign ad for President Trump, one that you did not consent to being part of. In it, your voice was featured, but your words were taken out of context. You sound like you’re praising Trump’s handling of the pandemic. You’ve never publicly endorsed a political candidate in five decades of public service. So, in the case of this ad and maybe future ads, do you have any recourse?

I’ve come out publicly and I’ll say it now. I think that that’s inappropriate, what they’re doing. As you said correctly, I’ve been in public service for five decades now, and I have never either indirectly or directly endorsed a political candidate. And I think to take me and thrust me into that, against my will — and besides, taking words that I said in a completely different context and make it look like it’s in the context of a campaign ad — is inappropriate and wrong. And I wish they would not do that.

Do you worry that, like that ad, the White House wants to be associated with you and your stature, but frankly doesn’t want to take your medicine or listen to your science?

There are things I don’t have control over, but the thing I do have control over is giving the American people the public health message based on data and based on evidence and based on facts. I’ve done that all along, not only with COVID-19 but with every other outbreak that I’ve been involved with. And I’ll continue to do that. What other people do, whether or not they distort things, I just don’t have any control over that.

It’s interesting, your counterpart in Germany has almost disappeared from public life, but he has a podcast. Do you think that there’s a role to play that way, that maybe there’s another messaging avenue for you?

No, I actually want to stay within the confines of my own position. You know, I am a government employee. I have worked for the Department of Health and Human Services for decades and decades. I want to continue my messaging within the context of my position. I mean, I could go outside of that. That would only be provocative. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a provocative troublemaker. I want to just continue to give a solid public health message to the American people and in some respects to the rest of the world about what we can do to contain this outbreak. If I start doing it in different venues, it might, you know, create more noise than it would create effective messaging.

Dr. Fauci, leave us with just a little practical messaging. What is your advice for the holiday season? Can intergenerational families find a way to get together for Thanksgiving?

It really depends on where you are and where family members are coming from. Particularly when you have a short holiday like Thanksgiving, which is really measured just in a couple of days. You may need to really restrict things to immediate close family members, because when you try to have a big congregate and you don’t know where people are coming from, they may come from a place with a high rate of infection. By the time you get through any quarantine, the holiday’s over. If you can get tested, that would be helpful. But I think each individual family has to make up their own mind about the relative risk, for example, to people in the family who are elderly or who have underlying conditions. I don’t think it’s going to be a one-size-fits-all recommendation for families during the holidays, particularly during Thanksgiving. We are facing the same situation myself with my daughters — who are coming from all different parts of the country — whether it be worth their while to come to Washington just for a couple of days when they all have important jobs in different states throughout the country. Would they have to quarantine? Would they have to get tested? They’re all obviously a little concerned because I am in a risk group because of my age and they’re very conscientious. They don’t want to put me at risk. So we have to make a decision, as a family, about what we’re going to do.

So that’s a tough calculation to make personally and for everybody.

Yes, it is. Definitely.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

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