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Fauci: ‘I Don’t Think You Can Say We’re Doing Great. I Mean, We’re Just Not.’

For this week’s episode of PODCAST-19, we interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a leader in the United States’ COVID-19 response. As you’ll hear in the podcast and read in selected excerpts below, we covered a lot of ground in the 30 minutes we had to talk, including how the U.S. is doing compared to other countries, how American partisanship has influenced our recovery efforts, and how a COVID-19 vaccine might influence the future of vaccine acceptance in our country.

Don’t want to miss an episode of PODCAST-19, FiveThirtyEight’s weekly look at what we know — and what we know we don’t know — about COVID-19? Subscribe on your favorite podcasting app! For example, here’s where to do it on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

On why we’re seeing a surge in cases:

Anna Rothschild: So are you saying that in these states, are you saying that it’s a mix of politicians not following guidelines and people not following orders?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: Yes. It is both. I mean, it’s not a unidimensional thing. It’s complicated. There are some governors and mayors that did it perfectly correctly. They stayed exactly. They wanted to open up, so they went through the guidelines of opening up their state. But what happened is that many of the citizenry, said, “You know, well, I’m either going to be locked down or I’m going to let it all rip.” And you could see from just looking, documented on TV and in the papers of still photos of people at bars and congregations, which are a perfect setup, particularly if you don’t have a mask. Yeah, then there are some times when despite the guidelines and the recommendations to open up carefully and prudently, some states skipped over those and just opened up too quickly.

AR: Do you think that Florida and Arizona opened up too quickly?

AF: You know, I think in some respects, in some cases, they did not always. But I think that that certainly is contributing to that. Certainly Florida I know, you know, I think jumped over a couple of checkpoints.

Fauci on why we’re seeing a surge in cases l FiveThirtyEight

On whether partisanship makes fighting COVID-19 more difficult:

AR You know, for a few months, masks were quite a partisan issue, though in the past few weeks politicians on both sides have advocated for their use. Do you think America’s hyperpartisan environment has made it more difficult to suppress the virus?

AF: You know, I think you’d have to admit that that’s the case. We live, I mean, you have to be having blindfolders on and covering your ears to think that we don’t live in a very divisive society now, from a political standpoint. I mean, it’s just unfortunate, but it is what it is. And you know, from experience historically, that when you don’t have unanimity in an approach to something, you’re not as effective in how you handle it. So I think you’d have to make the assumption that if there wasn’t such divisiveness, that we would have a more coordinated approach.

Fauci on whether partisanship makes fighting COVID-19 more difficult

On how the U.S. is doing:

AR: How do you think the U.S. is doing right now? If you’re looking across the world, what are your feelings about how we’re doing right now?

AF: Well, let me say there are parts of the United States, like where you live right now [in New York], that are doing really well, that you’ve been through something really bad and you have things under control. And you have a governor and mayor in the city who understand what it means to go by the guidelines for the gateway, phase one, phase two, phase three. So you’re doing well. Other cities are doing well. But as a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don’t think you can say we’re doing great. I mean, we’re just not.

On travel restrictions:

AR: We’re at this weird place now where the EU and some other European countries are opening their borders, but they’re still banning travel from the United States. Do you think that’s a justified decision on their part?

AF: You know, I wouldn’t use the word justified. I would say it’s understandable. Because, you know, when we saw that there were many cases in Europe and in China, we banned travel from the European Union, from the U.K., to us. So right now, they have their infection rate very low, much lower than we do. So they’re looking at us and they’re saying the same thing that we said to them. I wish that that were not the case. I wouldn’t be recommending that. I think we need to get back to some sort of normality. Just the same as they’re saying to us, “Why are you still banning travel from Europe?” Which we are. I mean, so I’m all for America and I back what we do. But if I were a European, then I’d be looking at us. I’d say, “Why are you still banning Europeans from coming to the United States?”

Fauci on travel restrictions during the pandemic and the EU ban l FiveThirtyEight

On whether we can get control of the virus without a vaccine:

AR: Without a vaccine, how hopeful are you that we’ll get this pandemic under control in the U.S.?

AF: I think we can get it under control. But keeping it under control is going to be the real problem. Because this virus is not like other viruses that we’ve experienced, like the original SARS from 2002. That was a coronavirus. It caused an outbreak, a pandemic — there were 8,000 cases and 800 deaths. So in magnitude alone, you see how different it is from what we’re doing now. But it was not really very well and efficiently transmissible, whereas this virus, to our dismay, is spectacularly efficient in transmitting from person to person. So that makes me skeptical whether we would get permanent, sustained control of this without having a vaccine.

Fauci on whether we can get control of the virus without a vaccine | FiveThirtyEight

On how anti-vaxxers affect what will happen once a vaccine is discovered:

AR: One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is that, you know, with any vaccine, even after it goes through extensive clinical trials, there is always some risk of adverse effects. And even if the side effects with the COVID vaccine, whatever it may be, are extremely small, it’s going to get more media attention than probably any other vaccine in history. At the same time, we also have a growing anti-vaccine movement in this country and around the world. So I’m wondering whether you and other other public health officials are concerned about kind of the long term impact of this moment on vaccine acceptance?

AF: That’s a great question, Anna. Because what it really tells us is that we got to get it right. We really do. Because if we don’t, it might have a real negative impact in the long range, in the long term, on how people approach and respond to the need for vaccination, which is the reason why we’re taking so seriously that even though we’re doing this quickly, we’re not compromising the safety and nor are we compromising the scientific integrity. So as we go into the phase three trials, not only are we going to be looking at efficacy, but we’re going to be really paying attention: Is there anything there that we’re seeing that’s even suggestive of a negative impact? That’s going to be really very important. So that’s a really important question you asked.

Anna Rothschild was FiveThirtyEight’s senior producer for video.

Jake Arlow is a former producer for FiveThirtyEight.