Hell freezes over: Yes, we can start easing restrictions like indoor mask mandates soon, says Fauci

Two days ago I half-joked that when Scott Gottlieb goes on TV and nudges his fellow experts to chill out a bit with certain restrictions, you can reliably expect those experts to start making noises about easing those restrictions soon afterward. But this may be a new speed record between Gottlieb pronouncement and government reaction:

STEPHANOPOULOS: A third possible wave may be making the benefits of the vaccine very, very tangible to people. You’ve had former — you’ve had experts like the former head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, say it’s time to start relaxing the in-door mask mandates. Is he right?

FAUCI: No, I think so. And I think you’re going to probably be seeing that as we go along and as more people get vaccinated. The CDC will be, you know, almost in real time, George, updating their recommendations and their guidelines.

But, yes, we do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated. As you get more people vaccinated, the number of cases per day will absolutely go down. We’re averaging about 43,000 a day. We’ve got to get it much, much lower than that. When that gets lower, the risk of any infection indoor or outdoor diminishes dramatically.

A cagey answer. He starts off sounding like he’s agreeing with Gottlieb, but by the end, is he? Gottlieb said it was time to start relaxing indoor mask mandates now. Fauci, however, has talked in the past about aiming for 10,000 cases per day or fewer nationally before we relax all restrictions, a number we’ve never reached since the pandemic began and which we may struggle to reach even this summer given how many anti-vaxxers there are.

How much lower does he want to see cases get before all mask mandates are out the window? How soon is soon?

Maybe … not that soon?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Give everyone a sense of what the country is going to look like next Mother’s Day.

FAUCI: Well, George, I hope that next Mother’s Day, we’re going to see a dramatic difference than what we’re seeing right now. I believe that we will be about as close to back to normal as we can. And there’s some conditions to that, George.

We’ve got to make sure that we get the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated. When that happens, the virus doesn’t really have any place to go. There aren’t a lot of vulnerable people around. And where there are not a lot of vulnerable people around, you’re not going to see a surge. You’re not going to see the kinds of numbers we see now.

What the hell would have to happen for this country *not* to be back to complete normalcy in a year? Many more people will be vaccinated by then, including kids; many more anti-vaxxers will have become immune by getting infected and recovering. Barring a vaccine-resistant “monster” variant emerging and overrunning the population, there shouldn’t be a shred of doubt that we’ll be back in 2019 mode come Mother’s Day 2022.

Gottlieb was on this morning too and was bullish as ever about loosening restrictions. Watch, then read on:

Note what he says about 10 cases or fewer per 100,000 residents being a safe-ish benchmark for reopening. According to this site, 17 states (including D.C.) are already below that threshold when measured by daily new cases. Another seven are between 10 and 11 new cases per 100,000. The great majority of all of those states are red ones too, which means Gottlieb’s giving the green light to Republican governors here to start getting rid of indoor mask mandates.

The wrinkle, which I’d be keen to hear him address, is that most red states have lower rates of vaccination than blue ones do. Should we tie the level of restrictions to those rates or to the daily case rates? Remember that most red states also had an easy spring with COVID last year only to have a wave emerge during the summer, when the heat drove locals back indoors. The unvaccinated in those states are facing the same scenario starting next month. And there are a lot of unvaccinated still left.

I don’t mean to imply that Fauci was all doom-and-gloom today, though. He told “Meet the Press” that he thinks it’s unlikely we’ll see a surge this fall or winter like we saw last year. In his own Faucian way, he’s sounding more optimistic lately. He’s just never going to reach the point of wanting to reopen everything until we experience an Israel-style curve-crushing — which may or may not be realistically attainable here:

I’ll leave you with one more bit of wisdom from Gottlieb. When I made this same point a few weeks ago, Twitter flagged my tweet as misinformation!

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