Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday reflected on the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic in what was likely his last public briefing as the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
Nearly three years after Covid-19 first arrived on America’s shores, Fauci said he never imagined the pandemic would last so long and take so many lives.
“I did not imagine and I don’t think any of my colleagues imagined that we would see a three-year saga of suffering and death and a million Americans losing their lives,” Fauci, 81, told reporters during a Covid update at the Whitehouse.
Fauci is stepping down in December as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases after nearly 40 years at the helm and as White House chief medical advisor.
He said the most disturbing feature of Covid was the evolution of multiple variants, which upended the US response to the pandemic several times.
When challenged about mixed messages given to the public about the virus in the early days of the pandemic, Fauci said public health officials were dealing with an evolving outbreak.
Public health guidance changed because information about the virus changed from week to week and month to month, he said.
Initially health officials thought the virus spread from animals to humans, but subsequently learned it spread very well between people, Fauci said. It also became clear later that the virus was aerosolized and up to 60% of people were spreading it had no symptoms at all, he said.
“The recommendations based on what you know in January, by the time you get to March, April and May — they will change,” Fauci said. “Understandably that leads to a question on the part of the public: Why do they keep changing things?”
Fauci said that one of the most difficult parts of the pandemic for him was the politicization of public health under the Trump administration.
Noting that many people have refused to get the Covid vaccine for ideological reasons, Fauci said, “As a physician, it pains me because I don’t want to see anybody get infected, I don’t want to see anybody hospitalized and I don ‘t want to see anybody die from Covid.”
“Whether you’re a far-right Republican or a far-left Democrat, it doesn’t make any difference to me,” he said. “I look upon it the same way as I did in the emergency room in middle New York City when I was taking care of everybody who was coming off the street.”
Though Covid deaths have declined dramatically, the virus is still killing more than 300 people a day on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health officials have said those who are dying are primarily elderly or other vulnerable individuals who are not up to date on their vaccines or are not receiving treatment after breakthrough infections.
Fauci called on Americans to get a Covid booster to protect their health ahead of another expected surge of infection this winter as people travel and gather for the holidays.
For decades Fauci was respected on both sides of the political aisle, but he became a lightening rod for many conservatives as the response to the pandemic became increasingly politicized under former President Donald Trump.
House Republicans, who now have a majority after the midterm elections, have vowed to launch an investigation into the origins of the pandemic and call on Fauci to testify.
Fauci on Tuesday said he would cooperate fully: “If there are oversight hearings I absolutely will cooperate fully and testify before the Congress. I have no trouble testifying — we can defend and explain everything that we’ve said.”