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‘Was damage done? I don’t know’: Health experts are slow to criticize Fauci but quick to correct his claim that we are ‘out of the pandemic’

May 1, 2022, 9:00 AM UTC

This week, COVID czar Dr. Anthony Fauci took the medical community aback when he announced that the U.S. is “out of the pandemic phase.” He said it as the U.S. neared its millionth COVID death, and cases are once again on the rise.

“We are certainly, right now, out of the pandemic phase,” Fauci told PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff on Tuesday. “We don’t have 900,000 new infections a day and tens and tens and tens and tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths. We are at a low level right now. 

“So if you say, ‘Are we out of the pandemic phase in this country?’ We are.”

Fauci later repeated the sentiment, telling Woodruff “right now we are not in the pandemic phase in this country,” though he ended the interview by saying the world is still in a pandemic. 

On Wednesday he clarified his statements, telling NPR, “What I’m referring to is that we are no longer in the acute fulminant accelerated phase of the outbreak. We’re in a somewhat of a transitional phase where the cases’ numbers have decelerated—and hopefully we’re getting to a phase of somewhat better control, where we can begin to start resuming more easily normal activities.”

The health experts Fortune spoke to were slow to criticize Fauci, saying it’s been a long and arduous two years, and that his initial statements, while incorrect, were perhaps well-intentioned slips of the tongue.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association, thinks Fauci was “just being inartful,” and that an attempt at cautious optimism backfired.

But he cautioned that COVID “has continued to fool us every single time we thought we knew where it was going,” he said. “The one thing predictable is that it’s unpredictable.” 

Society has the tools to ensure COVID is no longer as disruptive as it initially was, said Dr. Panagis Galiasatos, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins’ Division of Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine who treats long-COVID patients.

“Masks work, stay at home [when you’re sick], quarantine as you see fit—these are weapons that [can] keep COVID from being life-threatening. I think that’s what he’s trying to get at. The pandemic is here, but we should take into account that many countries are in a different place.”

Still, public health officials need to be “careful with wording what we say,” he said.

“Was damage done? I don’t know. I do view it as a potential miscommunication. We’re all guilty of it. We’ve all probably said something we wish we could take back.”

Phoebe Lostroh, a Harvard-trained microbiology professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, said she respects Fauci, who has been a “voice of reason in this outbreak.” But she questions even his revised statement.

“I think he made a faux pas even saying the acute phase is over,” Lostroh said. “It’s over for those of us who have been vaccinated and boosted, and those of us who have enough money to get anything delivered to our homes so we don’t have to go out in high-density areas, who don’t have young children exposed over and over again, who can afford masks.”

She wishes Fauci would have been more clear on those at highest risk of death and severe illness from COVID, including those who aren’t vaccinated and boosted, those who are immunocompromised, and children 5 and under who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine. 

“It would be better to convey to the public that we still need to make progress on these goals, need to make progress on providing clean and healthy air in workplaces, places of business, schools,” she said. 

Lostroh’s best guess is that “Fauci was trying to say that medicine has learned a lot—he was trying to put out a vote of confidence,” she said. “He could have been more nuanced about the level of investment we still need as a society to keep everyone safe.”

Arijit Chakravarty, a COVID researcher and CEO of Fractal Therapeutics, a drug development firm, said he believes debate about what phase of the pandemic we’re in is a distraction.

“The situation is the virus is spreading uncontrolled, more or less,” he said, a reference to relaxed or nonexistent restrictions in most parts of the country. “We don’t have any tools at this point to really dampen down the spread.” 

Vaccines, while offering protection from death and severe illness requiring hospitalization, are “remarkably degraded in their ability to prevent infection or transmission,” he said. The Washington Post reported last week that 42% of those who died of COVID in the U.S. in January and February had been vaccinated, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

“If you look at the interventions we have today, the actual things in your control, probably the single most effective intervention, two years in, is an N95 mask,” he said. “I wish I didn’t live in a world where that was the state of the art, where we had to figure out our own strategy to avoid being infected.”

As for Fauci, he’s “done the best he could in a difficult situation,” Chakravarty said.

But wishing the pandemic is over “doesn’t make it so.”

“I remember him saying a long time ago, ‘You don’t make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline.’ Unfortunately, two years into this, we’re all human.”

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