A month and a half ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) clashed with infectious-disease agency head Anthony S. Fauci over his expertise on the coronavirus. Paul urged the White House coronavirus task force member to stop pretending to be the “end-all” and to try out a little “humility” when it came to his warnings about the disease.

Today, despite coronavirus cases resurging across the United States after people and states declined to heed Fauci’s and health officials’ advice, Paul had a new plea for Fauci: How about a little optimism?

In perhaps the most animated exchange of Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Paul unleashed an extensive diatribe against keeping kids out of school and day care. Toward the end of it, he told Fauci, “We need to not be so presumptuous that we know everything.” He criticized Fauci for his comments about the potential for not playing Major League Baseball in October, at which point Fauci warned that flu season could collide with a continued coronavirus outbreak.

Once Paul was finished, Fauci laughed as he asked for a chance to respond and — as he did in mid-May — assured Paul that he was only providing his best advice about something that remains vastly uncertain.

“The only thing that I can do is, to the best of my ability, give you the facts and the evidence associated with [what] I know about this outbreak,” Fauci said.

Paul retorted: “We just need more optimism."

But while Paul criticized Fauci for allegedly unwarranted certainty, there was plenty of that in his own claims. Let’s walk through the exchange:

PAUL: “I think government health experts during this pandemic need to show caution in their prognostications. It’s important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert, and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur when we allow one man’s policy or one group of small men and women to be foisted on an entire nation.”

This was certainly a curious way to begin, given the resurgent coronavirus outbreak occurred after many states decided not to follow the federal guidelines during their reopenings. And those guidelines have been just that: guidelines. States have in many cases declined to follow them, and multitudes of Americans have declined to follow CDC guidelines on things like wearing a mask and avoiding crowded public places.

The idea that people like Fauci have forced people to “submit” to him and that he has “foisted” these things on the public is not at all borne out, even if you concede that the guidance is uncertain.

Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious-diseases expert, warned cases of coronavirus may soar. Here's what happened at the Senate hearing in 4 minutes. (The Washington Post)

PAUL: “There are examples from all across the United States and the world that showed that young children rarely spread the virus. Let’s start in Europe. Twenty-two countries have reopened their schools and have seen no discernible increases in cases. These graphs behind me show no surge when schools open. The red line is where the schools opened. There is data from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands. No spike when schools are opened.”

There is indeed debate about just how much children should be allowed to go back to school and day care, especially given they tend to do better with the coronavirus than older people — and given that closed schools are a significant obstacle to adults going back to work full-time. Some European countries, as Paul noted, have had success.

But the situation in the United States, notably, bears little resemblance to the ones in the countries Paul cited. All of them had experienced significant declines in cases or did not have many to begin with when they reopened their schools.

While the United States currently has about 120 confirmed daily cases for every 1 million people, here are the numbers of cases in each of those countries per million when they reopened schools:

  • Austria: 6
  • Belgium: 25
  • Denmark: 35
  • France: 15
  • Germany: 33
  • Netherlands: 17

Here is how the trend lines look in each country, on a per capita basis (i.e. not raw numbers):

In addition, all six of them were on significant downswings when they took these measures. The United States, unlike much of the world, is currently on an upswing, in which adding to possible transmissions is particularly problematic. And many of the countries also instituted strict guidelines and testing initiatives that the United States may not be capable of right now.

PAUL: “Brown University researchers collected data on day cares that remained open during the pandemic over 25,000 kids in their study found that only 0.16 percent got covid. And when you looked at the confirmed cases for staff, there was about 1 percent of more than 9,000 staff. The YMCA also has put forward statistics. Forty thousand kids at 1,100 sites. There were no reports of coronavirus outbreaks or clusters."

The Brown study is unscientific. Its author, Brown professor Emily Oster, said in a Washington Post piece that, “Perhaps opening schools and child-care centers would be safer than opening adults-only workplaces,” but added that this is only based upon “small-scale early data.” The YMCA has also said its data isn’t comprehensive and that it depends upon the availability of testing across the country, which has hardly been a given. Children may not exhibit symptoms, for instance, so they may not be tested in the first place.

PAUL: “Perhaps our planners might think twice before they weigh in on every subject. Perhaps our government experts might hold their tongue before expressing the opinion whether we can play NFL football or Major League Baseball. ‘Not in October.’”

This is the point at which Paul turns things to Fauci. Fauci was recently quoted by the Los Angeles Times discouraging stretching the baseball season into October:

“If the question is time, I would try to keep it in the core summer months and end it not with the way we play the World Series, until the end of October when it’s cold. … I would avoid that.
“I’d have to underscore, ‘probably.’ This virus is one that keeps fooling us. Under most circumstances — but we don’t know for sure here — viruses do better when the weather starts to get colder and people start spending more time inside, as opposed to outside. The community has a greater chance of getting infected."

There is plenty of nuance in Fauci’s answer here, but Paul casts him as saying “not in October.” As Fauci has said repeatedly (and we’ll get to that), he is offering his best expert opinion on things which may not be certain.

“[Austrian-British economist Friedrich] Hayek had it right: Only decentralized power and decision-making, based on millions of individualized situations, can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose. That’s what America was founded on not a herd with a couple of people in Washington all telling us what to do, and we like sheep blindly follow.”

Again, it’s not clear what country Paul is talking about. States and localities have pursued very disparate approaches to reopening amid the coronavirus outbreak. There are certainly very few examples of “blindly follow[ing]” health officials. Nothing in the federal government’s guidelines has been mandatory — much less enforced as such. We’re certainly learning lessons about which approaches work and do not work, given those disparate approaches.

Now to the final exchange, in which Fauci weighs in:

PAUL: All I hear, Dr. Fauci, is, ‘We can’t do this. We can’t do that. We can’t play baseball. Well, even that’s not based on the science.' I mean, flu season peaks in February. We don’t know that covid’s going to be like the flu season. It might. We don’t know that. But we wouldn’t ban school in October. You might close some schools when they get the flu. We need to not be so presumptuous that we know everything. But my question to you, is, can’t you give us a little bit more on schools that we can get back to school? That there’s a great deal of evidence and it’s actually good evidence that kids aren’t transmitting this, it’s rare, and that kids are staying healthy and that, yes, we can open our schools.

FAUCI: Is the chairman do I have a little bit of time (laughs)? … So very quickly, Sen. Paul, I agree with a lot of what you say about, you know, this idea about people having to put their opinions out without data. And sometimes you have to make extrapolations because you’re in a position where you need to at least give some sort of recommendation. But if you were listening and I think you were to my opening statement and my response to one of the questions I feel very strongly we need to do whatever we can to get the children back to school. So I think we are in lock agreement with that. The other thing that I like to clarify very briefly is that, when things get in the press of what I supposedly said, I didn’t say. I never said we can’t play a certain sport. What happens is that people in the sport industry they could either be people from players association, owners, people involved in the health of the players ask me opinions regarding certain facts about the spread of the virus, what the dynamics are, I give it and then it gets interpreted that I’m saying, ‘You can’t play this sport or you can’t play that sport.’ I agree with you. I am completely unqualified to tell you whether you can play a sport or not (laughs). The only thing that I can do is, to the best of my ability, give you the facts and the evidence associated with [what] I know about this outbreak. Thank you.

PAUL: We just need more optimism.

What’s remarkable about Paul’s criticism of Fauci and other experts is that they — including Fauci — have almost never presented themselves as all-knowing and providing strict prescriptions about what should be done. Fauci, in particular, has gone out of his way to emphasize repeatedly that there is much the experts don’t know and that he’s just working with what data he’s got. He has also made a point to emphasize deference to President Trump and others on economic decisions — which has undoubtedly irked people who wanted him to make a stronger stand against reopening.

In the end, Paul seems to have propped up a straw man of an all-powerful health expert dictating to all 50 states what they should do. In fact, what we have is a health expert with decades of experience who almost always gives his opinion based upon data and is actually often ignored — perhaps leading to the situation in which we find ourselves. Fauci could have made that case more directly on Tuesday, but he has always been more diplomatic than that.