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Health officials push vaccinations as Fauci and Jordan spar

Panel questions infection disease officials on issues including COVID-19 testing at the southern border, vaccine hesitancy and reopening schools

The nation’s top infectious disease officials were hesitant during a House committee hearing Thursday to set a specific COVID-19 caseload threshold for rolling back public health guidelines meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the nation should focus on vaccinating people quickly while trying to drive down the spread of the virus. Fauci said the current average number of new reported cases each day is at an “unacceptably high level.”

The seven-day average of U.S. cases was 69,577 as of April 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, well below the peak of almost 250,000 daily COVID-19 cases in January but higher than during most of last month. The caseload is similar to what it was in July 2020.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pressed Fauci to specify a threshold that would indicate when Americans could “get their liberties back.”

“If I have a number, it would have to be my best estimate, and that would be that the number of infections per day are well below 10,000 per day,” Fauci said. “At that point and up to that point, there would be a gradual pulling back of some of the restrictions you’re talking about, particularly when people are vaccinated more and more.”

Earlier in the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing, Fauci and Jordan sparred over whether the public health precautions he and other federal officials have recommended infringe on personal freedom.

“You don’t think Americans’ liberties have been threatened the last year, Dr. Fauci? They’ve been assaulted, their liberties have,” Jordan said to Fauci, who responded that he viewed public health guidance as a way to prevent deaths and hospitalizations because of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

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The back-and-forth comes at a time when both the number of COVID-19 cases and the number of Americans vaccinated each day are rising.

“We are in a race between vaccinating as many people as quickly and as expeditiously as we possibly can and the threat of the resurgence of viruses in our country,” Fauci said. “As we know, we’re at a precarious situation, with many states having increases in the daily number of cases.”

Even after vaccination, people sometimes can get infected and die. Another witness, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, said the agency is aware of 5,800 breakthrough infections among 77 million people who have been vaccinated. While the severity of breakthrough infections can be lessened because of a vaccination, she said 396 of those people were hospitalized and 74 have died.

Committee members questioned Fauci, Walensky and David Kessler, the Department of Health and Human Services chief science officer for the COVID-19 response, on issues ranging from testing for COVID-19 for people at the southern border to vaccine hesitancy and reopening schools.

Walensky warned that emerging variants could make it more difficult to judge when the U.S. could reach a status of herd immunity, meaning having enough people in the community who have had the virus or been vaccinated to drive down transmission. 

The officials urged Americans to get vaccinated when they are eligible. Kessler said the nation’s vaccine supply could be greater than demand for the vaccine in the coming weeks, although he said that may vary across the country.

“We are a diverse country, and there’s going to be areas where there’s appointments that will go unfilled and there will be areas of the country where it’s still going to be hard to get an appointment, but I think we’re getting to that inflection point,” Kessler said.

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