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Health officials shift tone on coronavirus, say elderly and sick at risk

POLITICO logo POLITICO 3/8/2020 By Darius Tahir
Anthony S. Fauci wearing a suit and tie standing next to a fence: Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. © Samuel Corum/Getty Images Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The government's top infectious disease expert on Sunday said that the coronavirus outbreak is getting worse and warned elderly and sick people to think twice before traveling or circulating in crowds.

The remarks from Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, signaled a change in tone from health officials representing the Trump administration, making it clear that the outbreak is past the point where it can be prevented from spreading or easily tracked. That contrasted with the more measured language from some Trump officials including Vice President Mike Pence.

"If you get infected, the risk of getting into trouble is considerable, so it’s our responsibility to protect the vulnerable," Fauci said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "When I say protect, I mean right now, not wait until things get worse, say 'no large crowds, no long trips, and above all, don’t get on a cruise ship.'"

Fauci noted many of the newly confirmed cases showed signs of “community spread,” meaning they couldn’t be traced back to a single source and suggesting the outbreak is intensifying.

Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who leads the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said on ABC's “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that healthy people should go about normal daily activities but noted, "If you are not healthy, think very seriously about attending places where there are crowds."

The Associated Press reported late Saturday that the White House overruled a CDC warning that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines. Trump administration officials denied the report.

Current and former administration officials have said President Donald Trump's eagerness to downplay bad news has undercut his own administration's efforts to contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, there were more reports of the virus circulating in communities, with Washington, D.C., reporting its first known case.

Trump on Sunday took to Twitter to express confidence in his administration's response and praised Pence for leading the response.

Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on Sunday criticized Trump’s communication around the outbreak but also praised Pence and the rest of his team. “Has the president been perfect in his communication? I would say he hasn't communicated the way I would, and the way I might like him to,” Hogan said on "Meet the Press." “But I think the rest of the team has been doing a pretty good job.”

Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on CNN's "State of the Union" that local leaders have to consider whether to cancel large gatherings, and evaluate telework policies and school closings.

"We're shifting into a mitigation phase, which means that we're helping communities understand, you're going to see more cases. Unfortunately, you're going to see more deaths," Adams said.

Fauci said health officials still hope the coronavirus will burn itself out the way SARS outbreak did in 2003. But he said the coronavirus could reappear seasonally, necessitating a vaccine he said is at least a year away from being deployed.

Victoria Guida contributed to this report.

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