Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, who has served under seven presidents, used his valedictory at the White House podium on Tuesday to urge Americans to get updated coronavirus booster shots.
Fauci, 81, has announced he will leave government service next month, stepping down as President Biden’s top medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he has led for 38 years.
Fauci appeared in the briefing room alongside White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Ashish Jha, the White House covid-19 response coordinator, as the Biden administration kicked off a six-week campaign to encourage Americans to get the updated shots.
“My message and my final message — maybe the final message I give you from this podium — is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated covid-19 shot as soon as you’re eligible to protect yourself, your family and your community,” he said.
Fauci became the face of the coronavirus pandemic response, drawing widespread praise and harsh criticism while he and his family received death threats. Some Republicans, most notably Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have called for Fauci’s firing, questioning the science behind vaccines, masks and other public health measures and pushing conspiracy claims about Fauci having a role in the origin of the coronavirus.
Jean-Pierre and Jha offered kind words for Fauci, who was reflective in answering reporters’ questions about the toll of the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 6.6 million worldwide, including about 1.1 million confirmed deaths in the United States.
“When I see people in this country — because of the divisiveness in our country — not getting vaccinated for reasons that have nothing to do with public health, but have to do because of divisiveness and ideological differences, as a physician, it pains me, because I don’t want to see anybody get infected,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t want to see anybody hospitalized, and I don’t want to see anybody die from covid. Whether you’re a far-right Republican or a far-left Democrat, it doesn’t make any difference to me.”
At one point, Fauci acknowledged how those who wear masks are often singled out, joking with a reporter: “I mean, you’re absolutely right. I mean, I know sometimes when you walk in and you have a mask and nobody has a mask, you kind of feel guilty. You shouldn’t feel guilty. You look terrific, right?”
Fauci took over the little-known National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984 after joining the parent agency, the National Institutes of Health, as a 27-year-old doctor just out of a medical residency. Viewed as a rising star when he joined NIH in 1968, Fauci ultimately advised seven presidents and ended up being on the front lines of every major health event since then, including AIDS, Ebola and the 2001 anthrax scares. During that time, the institute grew from having a $350 million annual budget to its current budget exceeding $6 billion.
Fauci was well known and widely cited in the scientific community before the coronavirus pandemic made him the target of Republican lawmakers and media figures. During the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, it was activists who frequently criticized the government for its slow response to the deaths of many members of the LGBT community. In the era of social media and 24-hour news, criticism — and conspiracy theories — aimed at Fauci and the government were multiplied.
Missteps in the earliest days of the pandemic, such as failing to recognize that asymptomatic people were prime spreaders of the virus and dismissing the necessity of masks, seriously hurt his credibility with some people, including Donald Trump, who questioned Fauci’s expertise toward the end of his presidency.
“When you’re dealing with an evolving outbreak with the information, you get changes from week to week and month to month,” Fauci said. “We’ve got to probably do a better job of when we talk to the public, explaining that this is a dynamic situation that could change.”
“The only thing people heard when they throw it back at you is, ‘Well, you said we don’t have to worry about anything,’ so you just got to make sure you always underscore the dynamic nature of what you’re dealing with,” Fauci added.
Several Republicans — including some in the GOP-controlled House — have pledged to investigate Fauci’s handling of the pandemic in the next Congress. Fauci said Tuesday that he will cooperate with the potential requests of lawmakers.
“If there are oversight hearings, I absolutely will cooperate and testify before the Congress,” he said. “Obviously, you may not know, but I testified before the Congress a few hundred times over the last 40 years or so. So I have no trouble testifying. We can defend and explain and stand by everything that we’ve said. So I have nothing to hide.”
Fauci previously told The Post he is not exiting the public square but hopes to teach, lecture and write while inspiring and teaching a younger generation of scientists. He initially planned to retire at the end of Trump’s presidency but remained in place when Biden asked him to join his administration. Fauci spoke with pride and a sense of accomplishment about his more than two years overseeing the White House’s response to the pandemic.
“What I would like people to remember about what I’ve done is that every day for all of those years, I’ve given it everything I have and I’ve never left anything on the field,” he said Tuesday.
Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.