Donald Trump may be ready to move past his bruising mishandling of America’s coronavirus response, but the sweeping threat of COVID-19 is far from over. That was the point that Dr. Anthony Fauci and a host of senior administration health officials told Congress again and again over a six-hour pandemic hearing on Tuesday,
Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee hoping for good news quickly adjusted their expectations as Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, and Health And Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Brett P. Giroir repeatedly warned of a sustained pandemic likely to disrupt American lives into the early months of 2021.
Redfield, a Trump loyalist criticized by Democrats for sugar-coating White House inaction, minced no words: COVID-19 “brought this country to its knees.” Redfield warned that even with improvements in rapid testing and contact tracing, Americans “are going to experience significant coronavirus infection in the fall and winter.”
As Fauci and Trump’s medical experts were warning Americans about the real threat of a second wave of nationwide lockdowns, the president was claiming victory over COVID-19 from the safety of Twitter: “Cases up only because of our big number testing. Mortality rate way down!!!”
Trump would have a better handle on the facts if he spoke to public health experts like Fauci and Hahn—who testified that they hadn’t heard from the president in nearly a month. As Fauci explained, mortality rates are declining because now young, healthy Americans are becoming infected with coronavirus. While many of those young people will survive, they also carry the virus into compromised communities at rates higher than any other demographic group.
The result is a deceptive, temporary decline in mortality rates that behaves like a hidden time bomb. Meanwhile, community “hot spots” grow out of control, helped along by a lack of federal funding for the most at-risk communities: seniors and minority neighborhoods. Governors in Texas, Arizona, and Florida are now seeing that nightmare scenario play out in real time—just as President Trump cancels federal funding for expanded state testing centers.
Hays County, Texas saw a 532 percent spike in coronavirus infections packed into just two weeks, straining medical services that only recently began to resume normal operations. In Arizona, where COVID-19 infections spiked nearly 80 percent in just one week, Fauci warned of a “wildfire” scenario that could jeopardize our fragile national pandemic recovery.
Republicans looking to the White House for leadership have found a president disconnected from the difficult work of managing a public health crisis. At rallies in the budding coronavirus hot spots of Tulsa and Phoenix earlier in June, Trump all but declared victory over COVID-19 in grand campaign style. Unfortunately for the predominantly Republican areas now suffering huge spikes in infection rates, coronavirus isn’t susceptible to the name-calling and blame-shifting that defines the Trump approach to problem-solving. Congress, for better or worse, must fix the holes in Trump’s makeshift pandemic response plan without help from the executive branch.
There are reassuring signs that members of Congress are finally recognizing the full scope of what a second round of coronavirus infection means for their districts. Republican Texas Rep. Pete Olson opened his remarks by condemning policymakers and regular Americans who “aren’t taking this seriously,” pointing to the spike in COVID-19 infections currently hitting Olson’s southern Houston district.
The first step to taking a second COVID-19 wave seriously means acting on proposals by Democratic Rep. Robin Kelly and Republican Rep. Richard Hudson to vastly increase funding for testing and contact tracing in America’s under served Black and brown communities.
“Black Americans are hospitalized for coronavirus at nearly four and a half times the rate of whites,” an impassioned Kelly told Fauci. “For Latinos, the hospitalization rate is four times higher.” Addressing that massive disparity in illness is impossible when White House mishandling of emergency funds means Black communities are receiving far less financial and medical support than their white neighbors.
In Hudson’s Cumberland County, North Carolina district, medical professionals are struggling with a two-pronged problem: Not only are new infections on the rise, but they are concentrated in minority communities where access to healthcare is already a challenge under normal circumstances: “57 percent of our COVID-19 cases... come from African Americans, despite them representing just 34.9 percent of the county population.”
Kelly and Hudson highlight another headache in Washington’s attempt to get ahead of a worsening coronavirus outbreak: It isn’t enough for Congress to pass a well-written plan to properly fund and adequately test at-risk communities. Any new proposal will require strict and constant oversight from the legislative branch to ensure the Trump administration follows the letter and spirit of the law. That means forming an emergency House committee dedicated to ensuring essential funds actually make it to communities in need.
In order to meet the challenges of COVID-19’s next phase, Congress will need to rediscover a level of purpose and bipartisanship it hasn’t known in years. And the clock is ticking—if Fauci and Redfield are right, legislators only have until the end of July to supercharge testing and bring Americans back into compliance with social distancing standards.
That would be a nearly impossible job under ideal circumstances. It becomes exponentially harder with Donald Trump spreading pandemic disinformation across Twitter and discrediting his own medical professionals during nationally-televised rallies. But Congress no longer has a choice. With the president now focused exclusively on campaign rallies and media appearances, it falls on the elected representatives of the people to keep our country functional as we enter a new and unexpectedly severe phase of America’s struggle with COVID-19.