As the U.S. reached the shocking milestone of 500,000 people lost to COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, called the death toll a "stunning" number — and something that should not have happened in such a wealthy country.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that the highly infectious virus that has ravaged the world would challenge any government "under the best of circumstances," pointing out that countries like Germany and the United Kingdom also struggled to keep infections down.
"However, that does not explain how a rich and sophisticated country can have the most percentage of deaths and be the hardest-hit country in the world," he said of the U.S. in an interview with Reuters. "That I believe should not have happened."
The U.S. has the most deaths from COVID-19 of any country by far, and more than double the death toll of the second-highest country, Brazil, which has seen 247,143 deaths as of Tuesday. Fauci called the pandemic "the worst thing that's happened to this country with regard to the health of the nation in over 100 years."
Fauci, who was part of former President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force before moving to President Joe Biden's COVID-19 response team, said that the "intense" political divisiveness was part of the reason for the U.S.'s failings with the pandemic.
Fauci said that Trump is not fully to blame, "but the lack of involvement at the very top of the leadership in trying to do everything that was science-based was clearly detrimental to the effort."
"You can't deny that we had the medical people saying, 'Please adhere to these guidelines' and then you have the president saying, 'Liberate Virginia, liberate Michigan.' That's not helpful," Fauci said.
While in office, Trump continually downplayed the pandemic, frequently claiming that it would "just go away," refused to issue mask mandates and attacked Fauci's credibility repeatedly. Fauci said that for him, one of the toughest moments of the last year was watching state and local governments reopen before the virus was contained, ignoring his recommendations.
The choices made by many governors and mayors were "incomprehensible to me [when] you could see right in front of your eyes what was happening. When the American spirt is so divided, that really, really made me sad."
Fauci also told CNN on Tuesday that it was "actually painful for me" when hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, and "in those same regions, there were people who were denying that this was going on, saying, 'Oh, it's fake news, it's a hoax.' I mean, how could you possibly say that when people in your own state, your own city, your own county, are dying?"
"Here we are today, looking at 500,000 Americans who've died thus far," Fauci said. "That's the proof of what actually has been going on. You can't deny that."
Now, with two vaccines going into the arms of millions of Americans and more on the way, Fauci said that he expects some semblance of normalcy to return around Christmas, though he said it depends on the new variants now circulating, and peoples' willingness to get vaccinated.
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