Fauci: School in the fall? Not so fast ...

The good news thus far from Dr. Anthony Fauci’s testimony in a virtual Senate hearing today? The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease sees the possibility of multiple human clinical trials of potential vaccines concluding as soon as “late fall, early winter.” The bad news? That means people shouldn’t necessary assume the schools will reopen in September, Fauci testified. At the very least, there won’t be a vaccine to deal with the disease at that point, which means that reopening might bring “needless suffering and death.”

That doesn’t mean schools won’t reopen in the fall, but they had better prepare for what that will entail. Don’t expect a return to business as usual, Fauci warns, and the risks are very significant still:

He said that schools and businesses hoping to open their doors any time soon should not count on therapeutics or vaccines, saying that public safety hinges on the nation’s ability to regularly test Americans.

“The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” he said.

Rather than focus on vaccines or “cures” for those choices, though, Fauci says that the path for reopening has to be increased testing to spot outbreaks and halt the spread of disease when they occur:

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s leading infectious diseases doctor, warned that the country faces “needless suffering and death” if the nation reopens too early during the coronavirus pandemic, as top health officials emphasized in Senate testimony on Tuesday the need to move with caution and expand testing.

Dr. Fauci’s stark comments, made ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, and the comments from other health officials in the Trump administration in prepared Senate testimony, come as most states begin tentatively reopening after weeks of being shut down amid the pandemic. More than 1.3 million cases have arisen since the first person was diagnosed about 100 days ago.

Fauci told the New York Times separately that these kinds of questions should be governed by the metrics of the plan developed by the Trump administration. That means lots of tests and a clear downward curve in diagnosed cases, along with contact tracing. Until then, widespread reopening could generate a deadly second wave and create an even bigger economic catastrophe:

Fauci, in a statement to The New York Times, warned that officials should adhere to federal guidelines for a phased reopening, including a “downward trajectory” of positive tests or documented cases of coronavirus over two weeks, robust contact tracing and “sentinel surveillance” testing of asymptomatic people in vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes.

“If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines … then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country,” Fauci wrote. “This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”

The problem for the White House is that schools have to open in order for the economy to fully re-engage. Parents with children whose schools are closed won’t be able to return to work, and the normal backstops — grandparents or other older family members — might be more at risk from close and constant contact with school-age kids. That is one reason why politicians are pressing for some form of school reopening, and soon.

Fauci’s hearing is continuing now, so expect more news later in the day. Here’s one last piece of bad news, if expected: Fauci warned Congress that the death toll of 80,000 so far from COVID-19 is almost certainly an underestimate.