WASHINGTON - Dr. Anthony Fauci returns to Capitol Hill on Friday to testify before a special House panel investigating the coronavirus pandemic. His testimony comes at a time when early progress on combating the virus seems to have been lost and uncertainty clouds the nation's path forward.
The government's top infectious disease expert is testifying alongside Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Admiral Brett Giroir, a Health and Human Services official and physician serving as the "testing czar."
The panel, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, is divided about how to reopen schools and businesses, mirroring divisions among Americans.
A rebound of cases across the South and West has dashed hopes for a quick return to normal life. Problems with the availability and timeliness of testing continue to be reported. And the race for a vaccine, though progressing rapidly, has yet to deliver a breakthrough.
Fauci's public message in recent days has been that Americans can't afford a devil-may-care attitude toward COVID-19, and individuals need to double down on basic measures such as wearing masks in public, keeping their distance from others, and avoiding crowds and indoor spaces such as bars. That's echoed by Redfield and Giroir, though they are far less prominent.
Fauci's dogged persistence has drawn the ire of some of President Donald Trump's supporters and prompted a new round of calls for his firing. But the veteran of battles against AIDS and Ebola has stuck to his message, while carefully avoiding open confrontations with the Trump White House.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Fauci said he was "disturbed" by the flat-out opposition in parts of the country to wearing masks as a public health protective measure.
"There are certain fundamentals," he said, "the staples of what you need to do ... one is universal wearing of masks."
Public health experts say masks help prevent an infected person who has yet to develop symptoms from passing the virus to others. For the mask wearer, there's also some evidence that they can offer a degree of protection from an infected person nearby.
Fauci said in his AP interview that he's concerned because the U.S. has not followed the track of Asian and European nations also hit hard by the coronavirus.
Other countries that shut down their economies knocked back uncontrolled spread and settled into a pattern of relatively few new cases, although they continued to experience local outbreaks.
The U.S. also knocked back the initial spread, but never got the background level of new cases quite as low. And the resurgence of COVID-19 in the Sunbelt in recent weeks has driven the number of new daily cases back up into the 60,000-70,000 range. It coincided with economic reopening and a return to social gatherings, particularly among younger adults. Growing numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths have followed as grim consequences.
Nearly 4.5 million Americans have been sickened since the start of the pandemic, and more than 150,000 have died.
Fauci said there's evidence the surge across the South may be peaking, but upticks in the Midwest are now a concern.
"They've really got to jump all over that because if they don't then you might see the surge we saw in some of the Southern states," he told AP.
Though Fauci gets push-back from White House officials, other medical experts in the administration are on the same page when it comes to the public health message.
Giroir, the testing czar, told reporters Thursday: "I think it's very important to make sure that we all spread the public health message that we can control all the outbreaks occurring right now."
He said controlling the outbreaks will require people to wear masks, avoid crowded indoor spaces and wash their hands frequently.