By Kristen Mitchell
Following basic public health guidance on physical distancing, sanitation and mask wearing is not a hindrance to expanding the economy and resuming normal, public life— it is the key to doing so, said Anthony Fauci, a top scientist leading the United States’ pandemic response, during a virtual event hosted by George Washington University.
By adhering to guidance aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, he said, the United States can control an outbreak that has proven to be the greatest public health challenge the country has faced in more than 100 years.
“It is within our power to do it,” said Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “When we get a vaccine, it’s going to be much easier, but we can start on that road right now even before we have a vaccine.”
More than 1,000 viewers tuned in to GW’s Facebook page Wednesday to watch a special live edition of "Healthy You: Surviving a Pandemic," a partnership by the School of Media and Public Affairs and the Milken Institute School of Public Health. The event, hosted by SMPA’s Frank Sesno, addressed the national response to COVID-19, updates on vaccine candidates and the politicalization of public health measures such as mask wearing.
Dr. Fauci was appointed director of NIAID in 1984. During his 36-year tenure, he has advised six presidents and overseen efforts to research, prevent, diagnose and treat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, Ebola and Zika. More than ever before, there is an intense divisiveness in the country that has politicalized the response to COVID-19, Dr. Fauci said.
The politicalization of public health measures such as mask wearing makes developing a coordinated and effective national response to COVID-19 “very difficult and problematic,” he said.
“The public health challenge is a challenge for everybody. It doesn’t make any difference what your political ideology is or what you feel strongly about one way or the other,” he said. “We should be completely in line with each other, that this is a serious public health problem that’s affecting us all.”
More than 173,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and more than 5.54 million cases of the virus have been confirmed nationwide. Since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci and his public health colleagues have focused on one fundamental principle—that recommendations and policy should be based on data and evidence. Speculation and anecdotal stories need to be put aside, he said.
Dr. Fauci said he would like to see consistent messaging from the national level to local authorities as K-12 schools begin to reopen for the fall. The ability for a community to reopen schools and what safety measures should be established is largely dependent on the transmission in that community, he said. The ability for colleges and universities to reopen safely depends on extenuating circumstances such as location, plans for regular testing and ability to isolate infected students.
The symptoms of the novel coronavirus are often compared to the flu, but studies find that some individuals can face long-term health complications stemming from even mild cases of COVID-19, including “subtle, insidious effects” on the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Scientists are learning new information about the virus every week, Dr. Fauci said.
The United States is making progress toward a vaccine and currently has multiple vaccine candidates in Phase 3 trials. Based on preliminary data, Dr. Fauci is “cautiously optimistic” the country will identify an effective and safe vaccine late this year or by early 2021. Widespread distribution of that vaccine will require additional time.
The university announced in July that GW is one of about 90 sites selected to participate in a clinical trial for an investigational COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Fauci does not support a mandate that would require all Americans to receive the vaccine, labeling the idea “unenforceable and not appropriate.” He was also skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of a vaccine, calling it bogus.
“It’s not bogus because he has a vaccine. What’s bogus is to say you have a vaccine that’s safe and effective,” Dr. Fauci said. “The Russians, to my knowledge, and I’m pretty sure I’m correct, have not been studying this intensively in very large, randomized, placebo-controlled trials.”
After the discussion with Dr. Fauci, Mr. Sesno moderated a conversation with Silvio Waisbord, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute SPH, and Barbara L. Bass, vice president for health affairs, dean of the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and CEO of the GW Medical Faculty Associates, around leading and communicating in times of crisis.
Dr. Goldman is a member of the GW team tasked with making decisions about campus safety during the pandemic. Before GW made the decision to provide virtual learning for all undergraduate students this fall and limit housing to reduce the on-campus population, the university was planning for regular testing and providing residential space for students in isolation. Dr. Goldman said that ultimately, it was too risky to bring students to campus due to the growing number of cases nationwide.
“When I look at the outbreaks that have been happening in high schools across the country and the outbreaks certainly in other universities, I’m glad that we’ve been cautious,” she said.
Dr. Bass called the last few months an “incredible rollercoaster of discovery” as scientists work to learn everything they can about COVID-19. It also has highlighted stark inequalities in our health care system as minority communities and frontline workers have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
“This pandemic, more than any else, has revealed the inherent disparities that we have as Americans living in this country when it comes to something disastrous like this pandemic,” she said. “This has not been a fair disease... we need to be really aware of that, and we are really focused on remedying those disparities in a proactive way.”
Dr. Waisbord highlighted the importance of communicating strategically and effectively with communities that can be difficult to reach but have been hit hard by COVID-19. A “one size fits all” communication effort will not address social inequalities only deepened by the pandemic, he said.