WASHINGTON — Brad Pitt played him on “Saturday Night Live.” InStyle magazine put him on its cover, lounging poolside and looking remarkably relaxed for a man who has fought every major infectious disease since HIV/AIDS.
The bespectacled visage of Dr. Anthony Fauci adorned T-shirts and lawn signs. For more than two years of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans looked to Fauci to dispel fear and offer reassurance — and, sometimes, to shoulder the blame for the medical establishment, which was not always nimble or forthcoming.
Many celebrated him for delivering hard truths in a comforting, avuncular demeanor. Some denounced him for defending mask requirements and vaccine mandates. Few will forget the many months during which he was the face of the United States' response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never left anything on the field,” Fauci said at Tuesday’s press briefing at the White House. It was expected to be his final appearance at the podium where he was a mainstay in the spring of 2020, standing next to or behind then-President Donald Trump, urging Americans to mask and observe social distancing, and pleading with them to stay home to "flatten the curve" and "stop the spread."
Fauci, 81, announced his retirement earlier this year, as the pandemic appeared to be on the wane. A government official since the Reagan administration, he was early to recognize the danger posed by AIDS. He became the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984, a position he has held since then.
Although not necessarily shy about his accomplishments, Fauci retained the service-oriented outlook of his early Jesuit schooling in New York City, where he was born and raised. During an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014 and 2015, Fauci personally treated patients. He also maintained a jogging routine that took him through the leafy neighborhoods of upper northwest Washington, D.C., where he has long lived with his wife and three daughters.
The coronavirus was his last great professional battle, one that often confounded his expectations. “I don’t think any of my colleagues imagined that we would see a three-year saga of suffering and death,” he said. More than a million Americans have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
With winter approaching, Fauci and Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic response team coordinator, urged Americans to receive their bivalent coronavirus boosters, which protect against both the original strain of the coronavirus and more recent Omicron subvariants. Reiterating a point both men have made before, Fauci said that the coronavirus can only be relegated to a background concern if Americans regularly update their vaccinations.
“We’re gonna get there,” Fauci said. “We can get there with less suffering.”
Fauci has been cheerleading, prodding, cajoling and warning for nearly three years, with mixed results that have visibly taken their toll on the once-ebullient immunologist.
The “herd immunity” he envisioned in 2020 never materialized, because new variants kept arising, finding new ways to evade the protection offered by vaccines and prior infection. As frustration with the pandemic deepened, public trust in Fauci ebbed.
This loss of confidence probably had to do less with Fauci than with the fact that it was difficult to determine which protective measures were effective and which superfluous, what to open and what to close, where to mask and where to breathe free. Did students in classrooms need to sit 6 feet apart or 3 feet? Was it safe to fly? Was it safe to hug? When could we live as we once did?
Often, it fell to Fauci to provide an answer.
“We were not dealing with a static situation,” Fauci explained Tuesday. It took months for scientists to grasp how the coronavirus spread. Initial guidance against masking from other public health officials was reversed; then, the plastic screens and other evidence of so-called "hygiene theater" gradually vanished as it became clear that the coronavirus was not spread via surfaces. It also became clear that children, for the most part, did not get seriously ill from the coronavirus, making many officials — including Fauci — rethink their endorsement of school closures in the spring of 2020.
“The recommendations that were based on what you knew in January — when you get to March, April and May, they will change,” Fauci said. “Understandably, that leads to a question on the part of the public.”
At first, Trump seemed to bask in Fauci’s confident expertise, but as the summer of 2020 approached, the president grew frustrated that the coronavirus had not been vanquished — and took his frustrations out on Fauci. He and other conservatives celebrated Republican governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia and Greg Abbott of Texas, who resisted public health advice and opened their states before the CDC recommended it.
Fauci was increasingly sidelined in favor of Peter Navarro, a hawkish economist with no medical expertise, and Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford neuroradiologist with unconventional views. Trump never heeded calls to fire Fauci, which would have been difficult to do with a public servant of his stature. But he also did nothing to discourage attacks against him.
Jha praised Fauci as “the most consequential public servant" in recent history. The last two years, however, have not been easy, with Fauci facing increasingly pointed attacks from conservatives, for example when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged supporters to “chuck him across the Potomac.”
During congressional testimony, Fauci developed an acutely adversarial relationship with Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian-oriented Republican who opposed most pandemic restrictions. Fauci’s bouts with GOP critics are not necessarily over yet. Having won control of the House of Representatives in the congressional midterm elections held earlier this month, Republicans have indicated that they want to question Fauci about what he knows about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, a matter of ongoing dispute.
The prevailing conviction is that the disease originated in the wild, but some skeptics believe that it “escaped” from a Chinese laboratory, a hypothesis for which there is limited but intriguing evidence. Some Republicans accuse Fauci of hiding the extent of U.S. collaboration with potentially culpable Chinese counterparts, a charge that Fauci has forcefully denied.
Fauci indicated that he will comply with requests to appear on Capitol Hill. “If there are oversight hearings, I absolutely will cooperate fully and testify before the Congress,” he said.
Reflecting on his career, Fauci especially lamented the bitterly partisan discourse on masks and vaccines, which has made public health yet another arena for enervating culture wars played out on social media and cable news.
”I don’t want to see anybody die from COVID,” he commented Tuesday. “Whether you’re a far-right Republican or far-left Democrat doesn’t make any difference to me."