By Thomas M. Burton and Stephanie Armour 

Top Trump administration health officials emphasized the need for caution and widespread testing while easing coronavirus lockdowns, warning in a Senate hearing that serious risks would continue into the fall as schools looked to reopen.

"If certain areas prematurely open up, my concern is we might see spikes that turn into outbreaks," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told senators on Tuesday. "The consequences could be serious. Even in states that reopen with a deliberate pace...there is no doubt that when you pull back on mitigation, you will see some cases reappear."

The testimony from Dr. Fauci and others on how to safely reopen the economy came as most states began tentative reopenings after weeks of closure, with President Trump supporting the moves in a bid to ease the pandemic's economic impact. The U.S. has had more than 1.35 million confirmed coronavirus cases, and more than 81,000 people have died.

"The number is likely higher," Dr. Fauci said because, he told senators, at the peak of the outbreak in hot spots like New York, many people died at home and never made it to a hospital to be confirmed positive for the virus.

Governors are seeking to increase testing capacity and build contact-tracing teams as they move toward easing their lockdowns -- but states are also encountering friction with President Trump over how and when to ease restrictions.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday backed Elon Musk's decision to resume production at Tesla Inc.'s California plant, siding with the electric-car maker over the local government in a high-profile standoff on reopening the state.

In a tweet Tuesday, Mr. Trump wrote: "California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW. It can be done Fast & Safely!"

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday afternoon that the president's concerns over the lockdowns extended beyond just the economic impact, warning of the mental and physical harm to people of continuing to keep the country shut down.

"We do want to reopen this country because there are consequences that run the other way when we stay closed down as a country," she said.

But Mr. Trump's top health officials told senators that reopening too quickly could also be dangerous.

When asked Tuesday about the prospects of schools opening in the fall, Dr. Fauci urged caution. Expecting medicines and vaccines to make returning safer by the start of the school year "would be a bit of a bridge too far," he said.

Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) said such warnings from Dr. Fauci and others may be too strong, saying they should "be humble about things we don't know."

Dr. Fauci said he was in fact "humble about making broad predictions," but added that some children diagnosed with Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, also are afflicted with a "strange inflammatory syndrome."

Dr. Fauci said that with some states reopening before seeing a steady decline in cases and deaths, "there is a real risk you could trigger an outbreak...that could set you back rather than going forward."

Adm. Brett Giroir, who is heading up the administration's testing efforts, said an increased focus on testing in schools could be used as a means of surveillance to help ensuree students stay healthy.

Other health officials also emphasized the need for widespread testing to get a more accurate picture of how many people have fallen sick and to spot potentially undetected clusters of cases.

"Timely testing is vital to reopen America. Increasing contact tracing is critical," Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the committee. He said the CDC had created a state-by-state assessment of contact tracing and said the agency was working with states on surveillance systems to monitor outbreaks.

"We need to rebuild our nation's public-health infrastructure," Dr. Redfield said, adding that "it's important to remember we're not out of the woods yet."

Experts say the level of testing in the U.S. continues to fall short of what is needed to reopen the country safely. Mr. Trump said Monday the U.S. is conducting about 300,000 coronavirus tests a day and is on track to complete 10 million total tests by the end of the week.

Harvard University's Global Health Institute has estimated the country needs to be conducting about 900,000 daily tests.

Adm. Giroir, who is also a medical doctor, said Tuesday that he expects a marked increase in testing capacity in the coming weeks. By September, he said, the nation should be capable of conducting 40 million to 50 million tests if needed.

The format for Tuesday's hearing was unusual with, Drs. Fauci, Redfield and Giroir and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn testifying remotely because they were self-quarantining after coming into contact with a person infected with coronavirus.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) chaired the committee remotely as he also self-quarantines.

"Vaccines and treatments are the ultimate solutions," Mr. Alexander said. "But until we have them, all roads back to work and back to school go through testing. The more tests we conduct, the better we can identify the small number of those who are sick and track those who they have had contact with."

Sen. Patty Murray (D. Wash.), the panel's ranking Democrat, pressed the need for more testing, wearing masks and adhering to detailed public-health guidance before job sites and schools can safely reopen.

On Monday, Mr. Trump told reporters that people who wanted to get tested could be tested. "We have the greatest capacity in the world," he said.

Some Democrats have criticized the administration, saying the increase in testing and contact tracing hasn't kept pace with the need because of insufficient federal efforts on either initiative. Most states are hiring more people to trace and identify people who have been in contact with someone infected with coronavirus but many fall short of the numbers recommended by some public-health experts.

New Jersey officials said Tuesday that the state is seeking to hire between 1,000 and 5,000 people to build up a workforce of contact tracers, an increase from the current number of about 800 to 900 contact tracers working mainly at the county level.

Retailers in Ohio were permitted to reopen Tuesday with social-distancing restrictions in place, while many nonessential Wisconsin businesses were allowed to reopen this week with up to five customers at a time.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday the state is loosening restrictions on offices and malls as it ramps up testing capacity and would give counties the option of relaxing their own restrictions in line with what the state is allowing.

Virginia's Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that jurisdictions in the northern part of the state may delay the first phase of statewide reopenings set to begin on Friday "to allow those localities more time to meet the health metrics." The hard-hit areas around Washington, D.C., could remain under tighter restrictions until May 28, the governor said.

Neighboring Maryland has a phased reopening plan, starting with activities considered low risk. On May 6, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan gave the go-ahead for elective medical procedures and allowed some outdoor activities, such as golf, tennis and recreational boating.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday that live-performance venues and bars will remain closed in the state through the end of the month. The state had perhaps the most ambitious reopening in the country, allowing businesses like salons and bowling alleys to reopen in late April.

In New York, construction, manufacturing and outdoor recreational facilities may be able to reopen in some upstate regions as early as Friday. New York City, the heart of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., is expected to take longer to reopen, officials have said. Broadway theaters will remain closed until at least early September, the Broadway League said Tuesday.

Next week, Massachusetts's first phase of reopening could begin, while South Carolina gyms, salons and public pools could be allowed to reopen.

National parks and recreation areas were also gradually reopening ahead of the summer months, though some facilities, such as visitor centers and theaters, will remain closed.

Write to Thomas M. Burton at tom.burton@wsj.com and Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 12, 2020 19:16 ET (23:16 GMT)

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