Fauci rebukes Trump Covid claims but offers 'no excuses' for vaccine delays

By Richard Luscombe in Miami, Martin Pengelly in New York and agencies

The pedestrian pace of Covid-19 vaccinations in the US came under new scrutiny on Sunday, as the pandemic death toll passed 350,000 and experts warned of another surge in infections and deaths arising from gatherings at Christmas and New Year.

Leading public health expert Dr Anthony Fauci issued an implicit rebuke to Donald Trump, who claimed in tweets on Sunday morning that case numbers were being exaggerated and deaths wrongly attributed.

“Go into the trenches,” Fauci told NBC’s Meet the Press. “Go into the hospitals, go into the intensive care units and see what is happening. Those are real numbers, real people and real deaths.”

Dr Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, also contradicted Trump’s false claim that the Covid-19 death toll was “far exaggerated”.

“I have no reason to doubt those numbers, and I think people need to be very aware that it’s not just about the deaths, as we talked about earlier,” Adams told CNN’s State of the Union.

“It’s about the hospitalisations, the capacity, these cases are having an impact in an array of ways, and people need to understand that there’s a finish line in sight but we’ve got to keep running towards it.”

Trump struck back in another tweet that appeared to ignore the fact Fauci has been the leading US infectious diseases expert since 1984, serving six presidents.

Fauci “is revered by the LameStream Media as such a great professional”, Trump complained, “having done, they say, such an incredible job, yet he works for me and the Trump administration, and I am in no way given any credit for my work.”

The administration promised 20 million Americans would receive a first vaccine dose by 1 January. But two days into 2021, barely more than 4m have been administered.

Fauci conceded there were “no excuses”. But he insisted the pace was beginning to pick up and that an average of 500,000 people a day were now receiving a shot.

Data from Johns Hopkins University shows more than 20 million have been infected. The Covid Tracking Project reported 123,614 people hospitalised on Saturday.

“We’re not where we want to be,” Fauci told NBC. “We’ve got to do much better, but let’s give it about a week or two into January to see if we can pick up momentum that was slowed down by the holiday season.”

It was also revealed on Sunday that the Trump administration is in talks with Moderna, the maker of one of two vaccines authorised by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to halve the dosage and thereby allow more people to be immunised.

Dr Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser to the Operation Warp Speed public-private partnership for vaccine development and distribution, told CBS’s Face the Nation: “We know that for the malaria vaccine, giving half the dose to people between the age of 18 and 55 means exactly achieving the objective of immunising double the number of people with the doses we have.

“We know it induces identical immune response to the 100 microgram dose. Therefore, we are in discussion with Moderna, and with the FDA of course, ultimately it will be an FDA decision, to accelerate injecting half the volume. I think that’s a more responsible approach that would be based on facts and data [to] immunise more people.”

Earlier, Trump claimed without evidence vaccines were “being delivered to the states by the federal government far faster than they can be administered”. He also claimed, without evidence and using a racist term for the coronavirus, that US case and death tallies were “far exaggerated” because the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used a “ridiculous method of determination”, following the mantra “When in doubt, call it Covid”.

Fauci hit back on both assertions, while calling for better cooperation between the federal government – which according to the CDC had distributed only 13m of the promised 20m vaccine doses by Saturday – and states responsible for administering them.

“There is allocation, there is shipping, there is distribution, and then there is putting into people’s arms,” Fauci told ABC’s This Week.

“To say the federal government should do it themselves, that’ll never happen. So this leaves the states on their own without any help, without any instruction, without any resources. It’s going to be tough. You’ve got to have a combination of both. You have to have a real interaction, a real partnership between the federal government and the states.”

Multiple states reported record numbers of Covid-19 cases in the new year period, among them North Carolina and Arizona. On Saturday, Arizona reported nearly 8,900 new cases and 46 deaths. North Carolina reported its highest daily number of cases yet, with 9,527 confirmed on New Year’s Day, passing the previous high by more than 1,000. On Saturday it reported 9,356 cases for a total of more than 558,000.

Anthony Fauci receives his first dose of the Moderna vaccine, in December.
Anthony Fauci receives his first dose of the Moderna vaccine, in December. Photograph: Reuters

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said his state had recorded more than 1m confirmed cases, the fourth state to do so after California, Texas and Florida.

In Los Angeles, hospitals are struggling to provide enough oxygen for the sickest patients while in southern California in general, funeral homes are turning away bereaved families because they are running out of space for bodies.

On Sunday, Fauci said there was “no running away from the numbers”.

“It could and likely will get worse in the next couple of weeks, or at least maintain this very terribly high level of infections and deaths that we’re seeing,” he told NBC.

“People innocently and understandably were gathering for social and family get-togethers against the advice of public health officials like myself, even though it’s very difficult to do that when you have a family-oriented season.

“And then you have the cold weather, people doing things indoors much more than outdoors. And this is what happens. It’s terrible. It’s unfortunate. But it was predictable that we were going to see the number of cases that we’re seeing now.”