Fauci’s farewell: Thanks to the DC area, warnings against division

When Dr. Anthony Fauci announced in August that he was stepping down as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he said he hoped the COVID-19 pandemic would be under control by his departure at the end of the year.

On Tuesday, weeks before his departure date, Fauci was asked by WTOP’s DMV Download podcast whether that was the case, and replied, “Well, we’re not exactly where I would like to be, but we are certainly much, much better off than we were.”

Fauci pointed out that a year ago, the omicron variant of the coronavirus was at full speed, with 800,000 to 900,000 cases, and between 3,000 and 4,000 deaths, per day. Now, daily deaths are around 300 nationwide.

“It still is not at the point where I’m entirely comfortable with it,” Fauci said. The virus will never be eliminated, he added, but “We need to get down to a much, much lower level, if we are going to be able to truly feel that we are living with the virus.”

Getting the shots

That means vaccination, the doctor said, and the current numbers — 68% of the population has had two shots, and fewer than 20% have gotten the bivalent booster — add up to “one of the frustrating elements of all of this.”

While the booster numbers for elderly people are better, he still called the overall level “very, very bad” — especially with the winter season of staying indoors approaching and other viruses such as RSV and influenza peaking.

“We should not claim victory yet. And it doesn’t mean we have to disrupt society — that doesn’t mean we’re locking anything down, right? We’re not doing that. But … we have a lot of things going on that we have to pay attention to, and we have to utilize the countermeasures like vaccines for influenza, and vaccines and therapies for COVID.”

While test results and surveys of mental health professionals are beginning to detail the tremendous learning loss and psychological effects of the pandemic on American children, Fauci said it’s important to remember what we were up against in 2020 as well as looking through the lens of today’s situation with vaccines and antivirals.

“There are always collateral negative impacts when you do something as difficult as shutting down temporarily. I have always been of the mindset — and I’ve been very vocal about it, you can go back and check all of my interviews … that we’ve got to do whatever we can to keep the children in school, but keep them safe in school, by vaccinating the people who are around them, by giving good ventilation.”

He added that the pandemic had greatly exacerbated mental health problems that had already existed, and that the greater attention being paid to the issue, if backed up by real resources, could become “a silver lining in all the difficulties that we’ve been through.”

Divisiveness and threats

A lot of the obstacles to cutting COVID down to size have been political: It’s been documented that so-called “red states” have lower vaccination rates and higher death rates, dragging down the numbers for the rest of the country. Fauci expressed his frustration with that divide, and pointed out that it predated the pandemic.

“You have divisiveness in our country that has been fueled by so many things that are going on,” he said. “Political divisiveness has been one of the enemies of good public health practices. We should be all focusing on the common enemy. And the common enemy is the virus, not each other.”

Political differences, the doctor said, are healthy. “It makes for a diverse approach toward different issues — if done in a way that’s cooperative, collaborative and compromising. That doesn’t seem to be the situation we’re in right now. …

“Everybody is susceptible to this illness. And you shouldn’t have people who, because of one persuasion, feel they don’t want to make use of a highly effective intervention.”

That divisiveness has of course led to threats against Fauci and other public health officials, nationwide and in the D.C. area, and Fauci called that “unconscionable.”

He added, “That doesn’t make any explainable sense. Why would you want to harass people who are doing everything they can to safeguard you and save your life? But that’s what’s going on.”

Fauci is also facing threats from Republicans in the incoming House majority who say they’ll be investigating him over the pandemic response. “It’s not pleasant,” he said, “but I don’t let it deter me from doing my job. … That other stuff is unfortunate noise that I try not to pay attention to.”

Asked whether he had a message for his detractors, he replied, “No.”

‘Life goes on’

It may seem like those kind of pressures weighed into his decision to leave the National Institutes of Health, but Fauci said he made his decision for his own reasons.

Fauci pointed out that he turns 82 years old in three weeks. “My decision was based on the fact that I know that I have a few years left, I believe, of being energetic, I hope healthy, and passionate about what I’m doing. And I want to be able to do some things outside of the confines of the federal government. … We’re in a better place than we were a year ago. We’re going in the right direction.”

It’ll be bittersweet, said Fauci, who has been director since 1984 and been with the NIH for 54 years. “I mean, I’ve been driving onto this beautiful campus in Bethesda, Maryland, every day, almost every Saturday and many Sundays, for the last 54 years. Of course, it’s gonna seem strange to all of a sudden not do that anymore. But life goes on.”

He couldn’t say what comes next — “You really can’t be negotiating your outside activity while you’re still working in the federal government” — but had advice for his successor.

“It’s what we all should do in this position: Stick with the science; stick with the data; stick with the evidence; stay out of politics completely. I’ve done this for 54 years, and still nobody has any idea what my political affiliation or ideology is, because I have none.”

While he may be a controversial figure in other parts of the country, Fauci has generally been well admired in the D.C. area, where some lawn signs thank him by name. Fauci said he’s noticed.

“Thank you very much for your support,” he said, addressing the D.C. area. “… It’s very gratifying when people are very explicit about thanking me and my colleagues for what we’re doing. So it’s a thank you back to them.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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