Fauci’s coronavirus reality check: ‘You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline.’

"You can't make an arbitrary decision until you see what you're dealing with. You need the data."

Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Anthony Fauci. –Doug Mills/The New York Times

As the number of novel coronavirus cases continues increasing nationwide, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has a message for Americans wondering when their lives can start going back to normal.

“You’ve got to be realistic and you’ve got to understand that you don’t make the timeline,” Fauci told CNN host Chris Cuomo in an interview Wednesday night. “The virus makes the timeline.”

Fauci’s reality check amid a pandemic came after President Donald Trump and some conservative allies suggested that it may be time to end social distancing in favor of getting people back to work and restarting the economy. Trump said during a Fox News town hall this week that he would “love to have the country opened up and raring to go” by Easter — a move that would defy advice from public health experts who say current guidelines might need to remain in effect for months to prevent the outbreak from worsening.

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Neither Fauci nor Cuomo mentioned Trump by name Wednesday as they talked about efforts to contain and mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus, which so far has infected at least 69,000 Americans, causing 1,046 reported deaths. Wednesday also marked the first time since the outbreak reached the United States that more than 200 coronavirus-related deaths were counted in a single day.

“The nature of this outbreak that’s so frustrating and in many respects a bit frightening and intimidating is … it putters along and you think you’re okay,” Fauci said. “Then it starts to go up a little and then bingo, it goes up in an exponential way.”

When Cuomo noted that it “seems that the timeline is getting extended farther out, not that things are going better than expected anywhere,” Fauci, who has become a trusted voice of reason during the health crisis, urged people to stay flexible in the middle of the uncertain times.

“You’ve got to respond” to events, he said. “If you keep seeing this acceleration, it doesn’t matter what you say one week, two weeks, three weeks, you have got to go with what the situation on the ground is.”

He added later: “But you can’t make an arbitrary decision until you see what you’re dealing with. You need the data.”

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While the interview steered clear of the Trump administration, with Cuomo pointedly telling Fauci, “I don’t talk politics with you,” the scientist has often found himself in the awkward position of making public statements that contradict messages from the president.

Last week, for example, when Trump touted an old anti-malarial drug as a potential treatment for covid-19, Fauci had to counter with a more measured assessment, emphasizing at a news conference that the only evidence of the drug’s promise has been “anecdotal.”

“So you really can’t make any definitive statement about it,” he said at the time.

On Wednesday, Fauci continued stressing the importance of working toward a vaccine that is “proven to be effective” and developing drugs to combat the virus, reiterating his belief that future outbreaks of covid-19 are a possibility.

“It’s more likely than not that this is going to turn around and come back in another season,” he said.

And if that happens, the United States will need to be ready.

“Never again like this,” Fauci said. “We’ll be prepared. We’ll be a totally different ballgame if this comes back next winter, next fall.”

But in the meantime, Fauci encouraged officials to prioritize keeping hospitals stocked with essential supplies such as ventilators and masks, and he sought to soothe worries that critical-care facilities in hot spots such as New York might not be able to accommodate influxes of coronavirus cases.

Citing his meetings with the White House’s coronavirus task force, Fauci said the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other organizations “are really geared to try and help out.” He added that private businesses are also now involved in the effort.

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“We’re putting a big push on,” he said.

Throughout the roughly 15-minute segment, Fauci remained upbeat under the circumstances, prompting Cuomo to ask the scientist how he manages to maintain his optimism.

“I always say cautiously optimistic,” Fauci responded. “I give the appearance of being optimistic, but deep down, I just do everything I possibly can assuming that the worst will happen, and I’ve got to stop the worst from happening.”


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