The nation’s top health officials are concerned about the rising number of lawmakers on the Hill who have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent days after a violent mob attacked the Capitol and forced members of Congress to hide out in small, crowded spaces.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Daily Beast in an interview that the scene at the Capitol last week looked like a “subway car during rush hour.” There were reports of as many as 150 members locked in one room during the chaos.
“Of course, when you have people in close indoor settings without social distancing or masks, there are likely going to be some infections,” Fauci said.
“I’m just gonna stick by what I have said maybe 5,000 times in the last several months—the recommendation is that you wear masks uniformly, you keep physical distance, you avoid congregate settings, particularly indoors, and you wash your hands as often as you possibly can. Any deviation of that by anybody is creating a risk for acquisition and or spread of infection. Doesn't matter who you are.”
Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield echoed Fauci’s sentiments in remarks to the McClatchy news organization last week. He said the chaos at the Capitol would likely lead to a “surge event” that would have “public health consequences.” So far three members of Congress have tested positive since Jan. 6, including Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).
All three have accused lawmakers who did not wear masks during the lockdown at the Capitol as contributing to the spread of the disease. "I am now in strict isolation, worried that I have risked my wife's health and angry at the selfishness and arrogance of the anti-maskers,” Schneider said in a statement Tuesday. Jayapal said publicly that several Republican lawmakers refused to put on masks after their Democratic colleagues offered extras.
The new cases at the Capitol come after the House attending physician warned that all members who were sheltered in the room together during the lockdown should get rapid COVID-19 tests. The refusal by some lawmakers to wear masks is indicative of a larger problem the country faces in trying to control the spread of the virus and related deaths following the holidays, Fauci said.
“We’re in a very, very difficult situation. Take a look at the number of infections each day. We’ve gone up as high as 300,000 infections in a day. We've now hit something like 375,000 deaths. Last week there were 4,111 deaths in one day. That's horrible. That’s terrible,” Fauci said.
“We’re having a big surge of infections in various parts of the country. At least 30 of the states are in red, namely, more than 10 percent positivity. And it was likely exacerbated by the fact that we’re in the winter season, people are doing indoors more than outdoors, and we've just had a prolonged holiday season.”
“We know now that recent studies show that 50 percent of the infections are spread by someone who either never got any symptoms or didn’t and transmitted in a pre-symptomatic way. So people are going around thinking that they’re fine and they're inadvertently infecting other people,” Fauci added.
Fauci’s warnings are now almost a year old and still, he says, people throughout the country are choosing not to adhere to public health guidelines. If portions of the population continue to rebuff social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines and do not sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine, the country could experience a prolonged period of community spread with potentially disastrous ramifications for hospitals who are already overrun in certain regions of the U.S, experts warn.
Fauci said the timeline he laid out previously with The Daily Beast—that the country could reach herd immunity through vaccination by the fall—is still an estimation he feels comfortable with, despite the sluggish rollout of the vaccine.
“But that is totally dependent on the number of people that are willing to get vaccinated,” Fauci said. “If half the country doesn’t want to get vaccinated, we are not going to reach herd immunity with a vaccine. I'm spending maybe 50 percent of my day, on Instagrams, podcasts, Facebook lives—all kinds of things—talking to people about the importance of getting vaccinated. Literally, I’m spending about half of my time doing that.”
The federal government is still discussing how best to increase the vaccine rate in the country, Fauci said, adding that members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and Operation Warp Speed spoke about the announcement of new federal guidelines on vaccine distribution. The guidelines recommend opening up vaccines to everyone in America older than 65, as well as anyone younger who has a pre-existing condition that could make them more vulnerable.
On top of widening access, the government will no longer hold back doses for the second shot of the vaccine and instead try to administer all available doses as quickly as possible.
“I think that there is now a greater enthusiasm for being less restrictive about who you give the vaccine to,” Fauci said. “Even though you’d like to get the people in the [first] priority group done, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't move on to the next group if you have vaccine available. You don't want vaccine lying around—give it to the elderly, give it to the people who are young but who have underlying conditions. Give it to the people who benefit from it. We shouldn’t be holding on to vaccine because you haven't graduated into the next group of priority people.”
Meanwhile, as Operation Warp Speed works to scale distribution, Fauci said he and his colleagues at the National Institute of Health are busy studying the new COVID-19 variants reported across the globe, particularly the ones in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
News of the highly contagious variants has alarmed top health officials and scientists and has set off a wave of conversations about ramping up studies of the mutations, their impacts, and interactions with a vaccine. The CDC has said there is no indication yet that there is a homegrown U.S. mutation but that officials need to study the matter further.
“What we’re going to do is look at it really carefully. Thus far, there’s no data to indicate that the U.K. variant that is in our country now is one that evades the vaccine, but we need to study it more thoroughly,” Fauci said. “Before I can say that I feel comfortable that it doesn’t have any effect on the vaccine-induced antibody, I would like to see the data that we ourselves carefully perform. I’m not making any form of conclusions.”
“What I hear from my colleagues who are beginning to study the vaccine in South Africa is inklings that the [mutations] in South Africa might be a little bit more ominous,” Fauci added. “We're hearing that the series of mutations that are being identified… are mutations that might be a problem for some of the monoclonal antibodies. We don’t know whether it would be a problem for the vaccine. That is being intensively studied.”