As predictions of the coronavirus’ impact have grown more dire and the White House has belatedly acknowledged the pathogen’s repercussions on the nation, the media have increasingly sought to portray the administration as out of touch with early warnings from medical experts about the coming storm. A closer look at the public statements of those very same experts during the early weeks of the outbreak reveals that the administration’s initial reassurances were largely aligned with the assessments of the medical community.
Today Anthony Fauci is held up by the media as a national hero of the pandemic response and the only reason to listen to a White House coronavirus briefing. Yet, rewind the clock back to January and his public statements essentially mirrored those of the administration.
On Jan. 21, he emphasized that it was unclear whether the virus could spread from person to person: “Is it a continual spread? Is it sustained? We're not quite sure yet.” A University of Minnesota expert offered that “this is one of those inflection moments in outbreak history where we have enough information to be very concerned, but not enough information to say this is going to be an international crisis.”
In a Jan. 23 Journal of the American Medical Association podcast, Dr. Fauci repeatedly downplayed the virus’ potential impact on the U.S., noting that all five cases here were travelers from China. He also noted that due to limited testing in China, the number of infections was likely much higher than official counts, meaning that the death rate of the virus was likely much lower than feared.
Asked whether the U.S. might contemplate city-wide shutdowns like those China was enacting at the time, Fauci replied, “There's no chance in the world that we could do that to Chicago or to New York or to San Francisco, but they're doing it. So, let's see what happens.”
Most importantly, he added that it was still quite possible the Chinese could get control of the outbreak and prevent it from becoming a global issue, and that even if there were more cases in the U.S., “the CDC, as usual, is on top of things.”
A day later, Dr. David Heymann, the former head of WHO’s response to SARS, offered that, unlike SARS, the coronavirus “looks like it doesn’t transmit through the air very easily and probably transmits through close contact,” in contrast with recent guidance that it can spread simply through breathing.
The same day, Fauci emphasized that other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS could not sustain person-to-person spread like the flu and that such viruses “maybe never will.” For its part, WHO noted that no person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 had been reported outside of China and that all of the deaths had been limited to that country.
Fauci also took care to praise the Chinese government for “being quite transparent” and said he was “impressed” with officials’ cooperation.
For its part, the CDC issued a press release on Jan. 24 asserting that “the immediate risk of this new virus to the American public is believed to be low” and instead asking that the public refrain from traveling to China and focus on the seasonal flu rather than the minimal risk of the coronavirus.
At a congressional briefing that same day, in response to multiple questions about whether the CDC needed additional funding to combat the disease, Director Robert Redfield reassured senators that it had all of the funds it needed.
At the same time, some lawmakers began to break ranks with the medical community. Florida Sen. Rick Scott argued that despite the medical community’s calm reassurances that the risk was minimal, the White House should preemptively declare a public health emergency on the grounds that the information from China was likely incomplete and masked the true global threat of the disease.
But two days later, Fauci again minimized the virus’ impact and portrayed it as a Chinese issue, asserting that “it’s a very, very low risk to the United States. … It isn’t something the American public needs to worry about or be frightened about. Because we have ways of preparing and screening of people coming in [from China].”
But the following day, Jan. 27, Fauci was criticizing the lack of Chinese transparency, pointing in particular to new information that asymptotic individuals could be spreading the virus. Despite this, he continued to cite airport screening of travelers from China as the primary defense against it spreading to the U.S.
On Jan. 28, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar repeated the assessment of the nation’s medical leadership that “the risk to any individual American is extremely low.”
The CDC also pushed back on reports from China that persons without symptoms could be spreading the disease, saying it had not been able to verify them. Fauci went a step further, claiming that “in all the history of respiratory viruses, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks. An epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.” Unfortunately, such guidance is coming under increasing scrutiny and may have helped the pandemic spread throughout the globe.
Even as WHO and the U.S. declared public health emergencies, Fauci repeated in a Jan. 31 White House briefing that “we still have a low risk to the American public,” which was echoed minutes later by Azar: “I want to stress: The risk of infection for Americans remains low.”
Taking its cue from these medical experts, media reports of the time likewise minimized the dangers of the virus as “trivial” in comparison to flu, which claims tens of thousands of lives each year.
Weeks later, Fauci was still downplaying the risks, saying on Feb. 18 that the “hypothetical danger of coronavirus” to America was “just minuscule” compared to the “real and present danger” of the seasonal flu. Days later he finally changed his views and, in the process, was on his way to becoming a media star.