There is a “building distrust” in public health agencies as the coronavirus pandemic resurges in large parts of the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease official, in a recent interview.
Public transparency in public health information is “absolutely essential,” Fauci said in an interview with the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which was posted online Wednesday by the Project On Government Oversight.
“It’s absolutely essential because if you’re going to make scientific-based public health recommendations, everything has got to be transparent,” Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told the group of government watchdogs.
“Otherwise once you lose the confidence of people, they don’t believe what you’re saying or they believe you’re holding things back or they believe there’s a political motivation to things,” Fauci said. The interview was conducted last week and made public after inquiries by the project.
“And we’ve got to admit it, those of us in government, all of us, you and I and all of the people that work for me, and all the people that work for you, that there is a building distrust now in the transparency of what we do,” he added.
“It’s the elephant in the room.”
Governments must be transparent in health crisis
Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, didn’t say why he believes Americans’ distrust is building, only that he believes it is. There are have been missteps by both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Food and Drug Administration in the country’s pandemic response.
“If we deny it, we’re not being realistic because people all say the same thing: ‘Are you sure you’re telling us the truth? Do we really know how many people got exposed or not?’” he said.
Governments must be transparent in a public health crisis, said Fauci, who has worked on responses to epidemics and outbreaks ranging from AIDS in the 1980s to Zika in the past decade.
“If you go back over outbreaks in the past, the one thing that has always prevailed as the things that make things work is when people are open and honest and don’t hold information back,” he said.
Fauci never mentioned President Donald Trump by name, but he did make a comment that seemed to address Trump’s remarks caught on tape earlier this year in an interview with journalist Bob Woodward when the president said he intentionally downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus because he didn’t want to alarm people.
“The issue that people say you don’t want to alarm people is totally nonsense,” Fauci said.
“In anything we’ve ever done in our history, you know from world wars to depressions to anthrax attacks, now to an outbreak like this, the thing that gets people spooked is when they don’t know what’s going on, not when you tell them what’s going on,” he said.
“We’re a pretty strong country. We can handle the truth.”
Always tell truth to power
“Always tell the truth,” even if it’s something people don’t want to hear or even if it could cost you your job, Fauci said in the interview.
“If in fact, somebody does want to shoot the messenger and say ‘I don’t like what they’re saying, I don’t want to talk to them anymore,’ so be it,” Fauci said. “At least you maintain your integrity.”
Fauci has faced criticism from Trump and other White House officials over the months as he has steadfastly encouraged increased Covid-19 testing and mask use as the president has condemned testing and flouted mask guidance, not only from Fauci, but the CDC, too.
“The one thing that is so clear when you’re, you’re a leader, you’ve got to first of all be very consistent,” he said in response to a question about his leadership and past role models.
Inconsistency can destroy the “perception and reality of leadership,” Fauci said. A leader needs clear vision and should lead by example, he added.
“You can’t, you know, flip-flop on things. I mean sometimes you change because the evidence changes, but you can’t flip-flop,” he said.
But Fauci has faced criticism for asking people not to go out and buy N95 masks early in the pandemic because they were needed by health professionals but then later encouraging mask use.
He has said that early in the pandemic masks were needed for health care workers on the front lines during a time the country was facing severe shortages of personal protective equipment. When it became clearer that masks did help prevent the spread of the virus, he agreed with the science and encouraged their use, he said.
“As a scientist and a public health person, perhaps, driven by data and evidence, when I start veering off the data and evidence and flying off on some tangent, you can forget about it. Nobody’s going to believe what you say.”
People start respecting you
He, again, never mentioned Trump by name and, as a leading scientist, he used himself as an example of how he views leadership. But his comments follow Trump’s recent derogatory remarks about him, including comments over the summer when the President said the infectious disease expert had made “mistakes” and was “a bit of an alarmist.”
Fauci said an old friend once told him before he went to the White House for the first time to advise President Ronald Reagan more than 35 years ago to always remember that each visit could be his last “because I might have to tell people in power something that they don’t want to hear.”
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
It would be tempting to tell a President what he wanted to hear in an attempt to keep that access, Fauci said.
“And sometimes when you tell someone something they don’t want to hear, then they don’t want to hear from you again. So, don’t get caught up in the aura and the majesty of saying wow, ‘Isn’t this cool. I want to come back here and keep doing this,’” he added.
“We should come back and always tell the truth,” Fauci advised.
“After a while, people start respecting you and they know that you’re going to tell them the truth, and you’re not the messenger that gets shot.”