On Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, returned from his media hiatus with two key interviews and a seemingly substantial change in tune. The scientist and member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, who has long been advocating a cautious approach to the country’s reopening, delivered some made-for-headline soundbites that raised lots of eyebrows, including his statement that extended stay-at-home orders could cause the U.S. ‘irreparable damage.’
“I don’t want people to think that any of us feel that staying locked down for a prolonged period of time is the way to go,” Fauci to CNBC’s Meg Tirrell on the networks show Halftime Report.
Similarly, in an interview with NPR, Fauci sounded a bit more upbeat regarding a possible vaccine being available by the end of this year.
“I think it is conceivable, if we don’t run into things that are, as they say, unanticipated setbacks, that we could have a vaccine that we could be beginning to deploy at the end of this calendar year, December 2020, or into January, 2021,” he Fauci on NPR’s “Morning Edition” on Friday.
While both of the statements from the nation’s leading scientist give reason for optimism, the question remains: what has made Dr. Fauci sound more like White House talking points than the voice of candor that we have become accustomed to hearing? Even as the nation continues to grapple with an uncontrolled pandemic that has killed over 96,000 Americans, Fauci’s comments about reopening sounded very similar to the messaging that President Trump and his allies have been pushing for the past several weeks about the need to more aggressively open the country.
Unsurprisingly Fox News and other conservative media outlets that have been critical of Dr. Fauci over the past several weeks jumped on the scientist’s assessment. “Extended stay-at-home orders could cause ‘irreparable damage’”screamed headlines on Fox’s website and across social media. The prevailing sense that Fauci had come to his senses seems to be the mood of many ‘reopen’ advocates, after weeks of Fauci being under fire from politicians, protestors, and conservative commentators.
So what changed Dr. Fauci’s tune?
Could it be the that the mood of the nation has changed over the past few weeks as the pandemic continues to batter the U.S. economy? Not necessarily. While many Americans are anxious about the economic impact of a prolonged shutdown, the nation’s perspective on the pace of its reopening still favors a slower reopening. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 75 percent of individuals feel that the country should reopen slowly, even if it makes the economy worse, with 21 percent in favor of reopening the country quickly even if it worsens the spread of the coronavirus. The country also seems a bit less worried than they were at the beginning of the pandemic, with recent polling showing that Americans are feeling happier than they were when the crisis was in its infancy.
Is it that the science has changed? It’s probably not that either. While there has been some good news across the country as some states have had success in ‘flattening the curve,’ the virus is continuing to ravage the nation with over 1,601,000 cases, and the spread of the pandemic starting to move into more rural areas of the nation. Also, the nation’s testing data has been called into question, as this week the CDC and 11 states were forced to admit that they were mixing testing results in a way that might make the data less useful in assessing the rate of the disease’s spread. Lastly, while biotechnology company Moderna announced some positive developments with a coronavirus vaccine this week, subsequent reporting by Stat called the magnitude of progress into question.
If it isn’t the nation’s mood, nor the science, could it be… politics?
As Fauci and other scientists have come under attack for their perceived over-cautiousness, it’s not hard to believe the unrelenting pressure on them to be more optimistic has had some impact. Fauci’s comments this week come after President Trump’s well-publicized disagreements with Dr. Fauci, as well as Fauci’s Senate testimony that raised Republican ire. The nation has also confronted ‘reopen’ protests across the country, and the pressure on Fauci has been escalating from all corners. Just this week, a USA Today opinion column by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs, both Republicans, claimed that “… Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, and others seek to corral our freedom, just as the American people and many of our elected leaders are finding ways to open our society.”
In the effort to walk a tightrope between advocating health policy and navigating reelection politics, it wouldn’t be surprising if Fauci feels pressure to modulate his message in order dampen the partisan fires that have been building around him. But by doing so, he prompts an even more troubling question – is our science being sacrificed for soundbite politics? And if so, who are we to look to for scientific leadership in the next phase of the pandemic?
All eyes will be on Dr. Fauci during the coming days as an America that has endured a sobering spring tries to make sense of what the summer will bring. Will Fauci fall victim to partisan pressure or will he outfox those who would like to see him modify his message to the satisfaction of a President increasingly anxious about his reelection?
Not only does the country’s reopening hang in the balance, but so does Dr. Fauci’s credibility.