I watched this back-and-forth with Wolf Blitzer yesterday and was struck by how different his tone was from his interview with MSNBC last weekend, which went viral after Fauci again discouraged fully vaccinated people from dining out indoors. To some of us, that was the last straw in his program of hypercautiousness. Trumpy populists have been grousing about him on social media for ages but yesterday it wasn’t just MAGA types complaining. I remember thinking that it felt like the moment “Fauci fatigue” had finally gone thoroughly mainstream among the righty commentariat.
As if to prove the point, American conservatism’s most famous magazine has an editorial today about Fauci having worn out his welcome at last.
Fauci doesn’t write or establish the quarantine policies being enforced by cities and states; he can only advise other people in and out of government. But his voice carries a lot of weight, and, more or less willingly, he has become the face of America’s quarantine policies. Frustratingly, his perspective always seem to be that the right time to open up is another six weeks from now, no matter how low caseloads get or how much the national vaccination program accelerates…
Vaccinated people are protected against serious health problems from COVID-19 and we’ve known for a month that vaccinated people, if infected, shed dramatically less virus — perhaps 75 percent to 90 percent. If results like that don’t make going to a restaurant or movie theater safe, what will? If getting vaccinated doesn’t allow you to return to something like normality, what’s the point?
We can overlook the Hollywood-style poolside photo shoot, or his unmasking while watching a baseball game. But Fauci has turned into the perpetually pessimistic, overcautious, position-shifting, administration-pleasing face of the pandemic recovery. At this point, he’d do himself a favor by sitting out the next opportunity to appear on a TV show or podcast and focus on his day job.
It’s worse than National Review suggests. For months now, Fauci’s benchmark for fully reopening has been 10,000 cases nationally per day or, ideally, much less. We haven’t hit that mark once since the pandemic took off last March and may not hit it even after all willing recipients have been vaccinated this year, as there’ll still be many millions who refuse to get immunized and remain susceptible to COVID. His perspective isn’t that six weeks from now is the right time to reopen. Functionally, it’s that it’ll never truly be the “right” time to reopen.
But check him out yesterday on CNN. Not a single disapproving word is uttered when Wolf asks him about dining indoors. On the contrary, Fauci emphasizes that a vaccinated person’s risk of being infected is “extremely low” and obviously much lower than it was before the vaccines arrived. He frames the question in terms of personal risk tolerance, which is appropriate. And he goes so far as to say he’d be comfortable as someone who’s been vaccinated attending a baseball game. He never explicitly condones dining out, but by stressing how low the risk is for someone who’s been immunized and approaching the subject as a matter of each individual’s comfort with risk, the takeaway seems to be, “You’ll be fine, but if the idea of going to a restaurant makes you nervous then don’t go.”
Which is a pretty meaningful shift from his standard hypercaution, no? Watch, then read on.
I can’t square his attitude in that clip with his attitude in the MSNBC interview a few days earlier. All I can think is that it was made known to him at some point very recently that his relentless pessimism about the pandemic and his chronic underselling of the vaccine might be influencing people’s willingness to get immunized. He did take a lot of heat yesterday for his comments about not dining out, mostly from the usual suspects (Rand Paul called him a “petty tyrant” in a tweet) but not exclusively. I’ve defended Fauci many times in the past but was saying as far back as a month ago that his extreme caution had produced diminishing returns from his media appearances. A month later, he was still making frowny faces about vaccinated people going to restaurants.
At a certain point, “don’t change your behavior even after you’ve been vaccinated” is just simple vaccine skepticism, no?
I wonder if the White House communications team or his own deputies at NIAID were tracking the blowback from the MSNBC interview and decided to pull him aside to discuss a change in tone. Some red states already appear to be approaching the “vaccine wall” where they start running out of eager recipients and have to start persuading the reluctant but open-minded. Fauci’s endless caution about dining out may have inadvertently convinced some of those people that the benefits to vaccination aren’t that great. The CNN interview felt like an attempt to undo that. We’ll see if his tone remains sunnier going forward or if this was just a one-time thing.
In lieu of an exit question, watch Dr. Marty Makary, a chronic critic of Fauci’s pessimism, addressing his MSNBC comments on Fox this morning. Makary makes a good point about the looming prospect of a “casedemic” in which most older Americans are vaccinated and most younger ones aren’t and the virus continues to spread among the latter while producing few severe cases requiring hospitalization. If we’re still averaging 30,000 cases a day next month, say, but hardly anyone’s going to the ER because the infected are all twentysomethings who can fight off the virus naturally, is that a public health emergency requiring restrictions on businesses or a nothingburger? We know what Fauci will say.