WASHINGTON – When Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked a question at a White House briefing Thursday that he couldn't answer, he said so.
When Fauci laid out the challenges still facing the nation to get the coronavirus pandemic under control, he didn't sugarcoat them.
And when the nation's top infectious disease expert was asked if he feels less constrained in the new administration, he readily agreed.
“The idea that you can get up here and … let the science speak, it is somewhat of a liberating feeling," Fauci said.
With apologies to The Who, meet the new Fauci, same as the old, but with a new boss.
“Above all, our plan is to restore public trust,” President Joe Biden said Thursday, when laying out from the State Dining room a national plan to tackle the virus. “That’s why you’re going to be hearing a lot more from Dr. Fauci, not from the president, but from the real genuine experts and scientists.”
As Biden spoke, Fauci stood behind him, wearing a face mask patterned with beakers, Bunsen burners and other scientific equipment.
Earlier in the day, Fauci told the World Health Organization that the United States will remain involved, reversing former President Donald Trump’s decision to sever ties. Fauci said the U.S. “stands ready to work in partnership and solidarity to support the international COVID-19 response.”
When he addressed reporters in the afternoon, Fauci spoke from the same room where he often had to step carefully around Trump.
"You didn't feel that you could actually say something, and there wouldn't be any repercussions about it," he said.
Asked if he now wanted to amend anything he said during the last administration, Fauci said he had always tried to speak his mind.
"That's why I got in trouble sometimes," he added.
Trump’s disputes with Fauci became a sideshow of the administration’s pandemic response. More seriously, they were also a distraction and sent opposing messages to the public about what and who to believe.
Fauci repeatedly contradicted Trump’s more optimistic assessments of the pandemic and false medical statements. The coronavirus is not comparable to the flu. Hydroxychloroquine is not a good treatment for COVID-19. Some states should not have re-opened as quickly as they did. Masks are an important defense.
Trump at times sidelined Fauci from his task force’s work and tried to publicly discredit him. Trump tweeted that Fauci was “Wrong!” when he told Congress that the nation should have had a bigger, faster lockdown when the virus hit.
In October, Trump called Fauci a “disaster.”
Fauci tried to remain diplomatic. But he admitted to becoming “really ticked off” by a Trump campaign ad that took one of his statements out of context, implying that he had praised Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
During an October campaign rally, Trump criticized Biden for wanting “to listen to Dr. Fauci.”
“…yes,” Biden tweeted in response.
After Trump lost re-election, Fauci also said “yes” to Biden’s offer to become his chief medical adviser.
Fauci already had a strong relationship with Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff. The two worked closely together on the 2014 Ebola outbreak. (Klain keeps a framed certificate of appreciation from Fauci on the red walls of his home office just outside Washington, D.C.)
Fauci, who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has also already strengthened his ties with the head of the World Health Organization, whom he referred to Thursday as “my dear friend.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted his thanks to “my brother Tony for leading the U.S. team.”
“We look forward,” he tweeted, “to continuing our partnership.”
Fauci led off his comments to reporters Thursday by warning that "we are still in a very serious situation.”
He said hospitalizations and deaths might go up even as cases are going down. He talked about the challenges of the new strains of virus and the need for more vaccination outreach, particular to skeptical communities. When asked why some states say they need more vaccines while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contend they still have some, Fauci said he doesn't know but wants to find out.
"One of the new things in this administration, is if you don’t know the answer, don’t guess," he said in response to another question.
Fauci gave some credit to the Trump administration, saying the while the new administration is coming in with "fresh ideas," they are not starting entirely from scratch.
"So we are continuing, but you're going to see a real ramping up of it," he said.
And if things go wrong, Fauci promised to be upfront about the mistakes.
"That was literally," he said, "a conversation I had, 15 minutes ago, with the president."
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