Anthony Fauci, a high-profile member of the White House coronavirus task force, told Congress that the surge in Covid-19 cases in the US was due to states not following official guidance, in a tacit rejection of Donald Trump’s insistence that it was the result of widespread testing.
States in America’s “sunbelt” region, which includes parts of the south and south-west, have in recent weeks been hit by soaring numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths. Florida reported a record number of fatalities for a third day in a row on Thursday, with 253 confirmed deaths, while California had a near-record 194.
Public health officials have also warned that the virus is spreading north to Midwest states including Ohio, Kansas and Nebraska.
Overall, the US registered 69,917 new cases on Thursday, and 1,291 fatalities, bringing its total death toll close to 150,000, according to the latest Covid Tracking Project data. Last week, the US surpassed a milestone 4m cases, making it by far the country with the largest number of reported infections.
Mr Trump, who has repeatedly claimed that the virus would “disappear”, argued on Thursday that the US was faring no worse than other countries, telling reporters at the White House: “All over the world, they are having tremendous problems, a resurgence has taken place in many countries that many people thought were doing well.”
But on Friday, at a hearing of the House subcommittee on the crisis, Jim Clyburn, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina, displayed a chart comparing the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per million in the US and in Europe, before asking Dr Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to explain the divergence.
Dr Fauci replied that Europe had locked down more aggressively than the US, where many state governors initially resisted imposing stay-at-home orders. He added that the US could “turn . . . around” if Americans followed guidelines such as wearing face coverings and avoiding large crowds.
Mr Trump, apparently watching the hearing, took to Twitter, saying: “Somebody please tell Congressman Clyburn, who doesn’t have a clue, that the chart he put up indicating more CASES for the US than Europe, is because we do MUCH MORE testing than any other country in the World.”
The president, who is seeking re-election in November and whose public approval ratings have fallen over his handling of the pandemic, added that America’s “massive testing capability” was being used by his opponents as a “point of scorn”.
Dr Fauci, who is widely trusted by voters, according to opinion polls, told the hearing that there were a number of reasons for the rise in cases. States, in some situations, “did not abide strictly by the guidelines that the task force and the White House had put out, and others that even did abide by it, the people in the state actually were congregating in crowds and not wearing masks”, he said.
Mr Trump and other White House officials had earlier this month turned on Dr Fauci, with the president saying the public health expert had “made a lot of mistakes”. The president later insisted he had a good relationship with the infectious disease expert.
Dr Fauci told Congress on Friday that he was “cautiously optimistic” that a virus vaccine would be ready by the end of the year or early next, after Boston-based biotech firm Moderna began its first phase-three study of a vaccine this week.
“One can never guarantee the safety or effectiveness unless you do the trial, but we are cautiously optimistic that this will be successful,” Dr Fauci said.