WASHINGTON — Students preparing to head to the University of Tennessee this fall shouldn’t expect to get a COVID-19 vaccine before then, a top public health official told Congress on Tuesday.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees health and education, asked top Trump administration health officials at a hearing what they would tell the chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, or the principal of a public school about returning to school in the fall.
“I would be very realistic with the chancellor,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far.”
He added, “even at the top speed we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school this term.” What students at the University of Tennessee and elsewhere want to know, Fauci said, is “if they are safe.”
Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the testing strategy for schools will depend heavily on the amount of community spread of the virus at the time.
“We expect there to be 25 to 30 million point-of-care tests per month available,” Giroir told Alexander, referring to tests with rapid results. More broadly, Giroir predicted that the nation will be capable of performing at least 40 to 50 million total tests per month by the fall, if needed.
“It’s certainly possible to test all of the students, or it is much more likely that there would be a surveillance strategy done, where you would test some of the students at different times to give an assurance that there’s no circulation. That would be done in conjunction with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the local health department.”
Giroir said that other strategies for testing could include “pooling” samples, where a single test could potentially analyze samples from 20 students. “There are some experimental approaches that look interesting, if not promising,” he said. “For example, wastewater from an entire dorm or an entire segment of a campus could be tested to determine whether there’s coronavirus in that sewage, the wastewater.”
Fauci and the other health experts said the key to reopening schools in the fall will be more widely-available tests for the virus, isolation of infected individuals, and hygiene and social distancing protocols.
“Given the number of tests that will be available, that should give every principal, every chancellor of every college campus … some reassurance that testing and common-sense hygiene could be used to develop a strategy for reopening school in August,” Alexander said.
Alexander chaired the hearing from his home in Tennessee, where he quarantined himself after one of his staffers tested positive for COVID-19.
Fauci warns against reopening too soon
Fauci warned lawmakers there could be a surge of COVID-19 cases if states, cities and regions disregard the government’s “checkpoints” on when and how to pull back from mitigation measures.
“If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery,” he said.
“We would almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward.”
Overall, Fauci said that some parts of the country are seeing spikes in infection, while the curve looks flat or is trending downward in other areas.
“I think we are going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have, by any means, total control of this outbreak,” Fauci said.
His remarks were markedly more guarded than the more optimistic portrait Trump outlined in remarks at a White House briefing Monday.
Trump said the number of coronavirus cases were going down “almost everywhere,” even though many states show a steady number of new cases. An internal report obtained by NBC shows cases spiking in some communities.
“We have met the moment and we have prevailed,” Trump told reporters at the White House briefing Monday, with tables displaying testing and treatment materials on either side of his podium. “Americans do whatever it takes to find solutions, pioneer breakthroughs, and harness the energies we need to achieve total victory.”
Fauci gave a guarded but optimistic update on the ultimate development of a vaccine for COVID-19. The process is moving faster than on any other vaccine in history, and there are at least eight vaccines in various stages of development. Researchers may know if they are successful as early as late fall or early winter.
“We have many candidates and hope to have multiple winners,” he said.
Fauci predicted it is “more likely than not” that one or more of them will work well enough to provide herd immunity from the virus, while admitting there are still significant research hurdles to overcome in ensuring the vaccines are safe for wide distribution.
Fauci admitted “there is no guarantee that the vaccine is actually going to be effective,” but said he is “cautiously optimistic.”