The Road to Jan 6 Final

Dr. Anthony Fauci Understood COVID Science But Not the American People

In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.

The COVID pandemic is "out of control," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Tuesday, December 29.

The bad news, both in the United States and overseas, was relentless. In the U.S., the total number of cases was nearing 20 million as the winter surge continued. Some 340,000 American lives had so far been taken by the virus (it's 810,000 today) and the country was now exceeding 2,200 deaths per day.
That Tuesday, there were a reported 124,686 COVID-related hospitalizations, a record high since the pandemic began. Forty percent of all ICU beds nationwide were now occupied by COVID patients. Hospitalizations in Los Angeles County, the most populous in the U.S., were at an all-time high. Hospitals were now postponing non-urgent surgeries. And hospitals were also facing growing staffing shortages.

And if that weren't enough, the first known American case of a new, more contagious COVID variant, later known as Delta, was being reported in Colorado and California.

dr fauci pandemic covid 19 vaccine
Dr. Anthony Fauci understood the COVID-19 science but didn't understand the American people. Here, Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is about to receive his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health on December 22, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the initial impressive roll-out of the COVID vaccines was hitting an obstacle. Operation Warp Speed had promised that 20 million doses of vaccine would be administered before January 1, but the rate of vaccination didn't match the promise. Only 2.5 million doses of 14 million doses distributed had been administered. The federal government blamed winter storms and power outages, and promised to do better. But everyone was quickly adjusting to setting up workable schemes for vaccinating, especially in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, which required special refrigeration.

And then came the partisan bickering. Dr. Atul Gawande, a member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID Advisory Board, blamed problems with the roll-out on a lack of resources and little advance planning. President-elect Joe Biden, he said, would be "upfront about what the challenges are" and "transparent about where the bottlenecks are."

Biden, meanwhile, criticized the Trump administration's coronavirus response, saying the vaccination campaign was moving too slowly. "As I long feared and warned, the effort to distribute and administer the vaccine is not progressing as it should," Biden said. He also said that he was going to ask Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days after he took office.

"Put aside this nonsense of making masks be a political statement or not," Fauci said on CNN, promising that if they did, the curve would come down.

Maybe Fauci was an expert on COVID, but not on the American people. Tens of millions of people were not wearing masks, put off by these us-versus-them statements, suspicious of government edicts, confused about COVID. Donald Trump contributed to this state, declining to wear a mask most of the time and offering his own fact-challenged theories about the pandemic. But the refusal was a deeper part of the American experience, an anti-government distrust enshrined in the very Constitution, not just in limiting powers of the executive but also in affirming the inherent right for citizens to bear arms.

It wasn't just about believing "the science": it was about believing the government and the scientists. "The pharmaceutical industry was making billions in profits," Steve, a Carlsbad, California member of the Proud Boys, told Newsweek. Steve, who is vaccinated, asked that his last name not be used because he feared reprisal. "We either live in a free country or we don't," Steve says. "I've heard all of the arguments that if we don't mask we are harming others. But what about everything that the federal government does, and the elite promotes, that harms others? At some point we need to have some basic accountability. That's just never going to happen within the two-party system."

COVID flip-flops, capricious impositions like lockdowns, the destruction of small businesses, the mandatory mask mandates: all of them, Steve says, were and are a part of an "assault on liberty."

covid pandemic travel december 2020
The record number of airline passengers showed how fed-up the public was with COVID-19 restrictions. Travelers in a crowded terminal at Dulles International airport in Dulles, Virginia, on December 27, 2020. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of just how many Americans were increasingly fed up with COVID was in holiday travel. On December 29, the Transportation Security Administration said that it screened the highest daily total of airplane passengers since the start of the pandemic, weary citizens shrugging off Washington's pleas for people to forego visiting with or gather with their families.