Fauci says school reopening ‘may not be prudent’ in some areas

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Anthony-S-Fauci

Anthony S. Fauci

Communities and school leaders need to exercise common sense as they weigh options for reopening schools this fall, said Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Thursday.

While communities should make reopening schools a high priority, Fauci said, the safety of students and teachers is the most important factor to consider.

“There are some areas, like we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks … of very significant viral activity,” Fauci said during an Aug. 6 briefing with journalists hosted by the Alliance for Health Policy.  “Under those circumstances, you’ve got to use common sense … It may not be prudent to get the children back to school in those areas. So, you got to say, ‘try as best as you can to get the children back to school, but one size does not fit all.’ ”

President Trump, during an Aug. 5 interview on Fox & Friends, argued that children are “virtually immune” from COVID-19, and therefore all schools in the U.S. should reopen for in-person classes. Trump also inaccurately said that the virus is “going away.”

But although children under age 10 don’t seem to get as sick or pass on the virus as easily as those 10 and older, a July 30 study showed that children under age 5 carry as much, or more, virus in their nasal passages, compared to infected adults.

Further, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is going away anytime soon, if ever, as Sarah Zhang notes in The Atlantic. SARS-CoV-2 is too widespread and too contagious for it to disappear. Researchers also don’t know yet the extent to which the human body can develop long-term immunity to the virus.

Fauci said that no virus, except the one that causes smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet.

“You can very well control, and essentially eliminate from any given country, a virus,” he said. “We hope we can do that. Namely, very adequately control (SARS-CoV-2) with a combination of public health measures and a safe and effective vaccine.”

Pandemics end when there is “herd immunity” in a population, meaning the threshold in which enough people have developed immunity that the pathogen causing the disease can no longer spread easily between people.

Fauci said scientists don’t yet know what the herd immunity threshold needs to be to control COVID-19.

“There’s some estimates anywhere of 50%, 70%, 75%” of people need to be immune to create herd immunity,” he said. But “we don’t know.”

Fauci reiterated he is “cautiously optimistic” that there will be an effective and safe vaccine by early 2021. Still, he pointed out that there wouldn’t be “hundreds of millions of doses on day one,” so there will be a process to prioritize the distribution of a vaccine.

The National Institutes of Health and the CDC have directed the National Academies of Medicine to develop guidelines for the government to consider to ensure that a vaccine, when ready, will be provided equitably. That most likely will prioritize first responders, health care workers and individuals who are at most risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19.

The Trump administration aims to deliver 300 million doses of a vaccine by early January. But as Lena H. Sun notes in The Washington Post, many state officials and health experts are skeptical about the administration’s ability to do so, given the difficulty it has had in rolling out a national testing plan and supplying sufficient personal protective equipment to health care systems.

Fauci also reiterated that many young people need to do more to protect themselves and others from SARS-CoV-2, because they remain an ongoing source of COVID-19 transmission. Further, more and more young people are getting sick.

“Obviously they’re not doing anything deliberately or maliciously, but what they’re doing is inadvertently … propagating the outbreak,” he said.

He urged reporters to write about the number of young people that are now getting sick and then remain ill for long periods or have died.

“I have seen situations, one close to home, a very close friend of a member of my family was a 32-year-old vibrant, healthy, wonderful young man who got COVID and actually died of complications involving his heart,” he said. “Also, we’re seeing a much larger number of people who get (COVID-19) have to stay in bed for a while … but then when they think they recover (and) find their energy level is low. They can’t do some of the things they want to do. They have chronic fatigue-type symptoms. They just don’t get back to normal very quickly.”

To watch Fauci’s Thursday briefing, click here. For more NIAID resources on COVID-19, click here.

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