Dr. Anthony Fauci is preparing to leave the public stage — but health experts are worried the toxic atmosphere that tailed him will hang around for years to come.
Opinions of Fauci among the general public cleave along partisan lines, but most experts think he did about as good a job as anyone could in managing a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
They worry that the unremitting personal attacks he faced are emblematic of a broader, sneering tone toward scientific expertise and advice.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown Law who specializes in public health, has known Fauci for almost half a century and considers him a friend.
“He has got caught in the rabid politicization of American culture,” Gostin lamented, “and he has got caught right in the crosshairs of the COVID culture wars these past years.”
Gostin, who said he shared Fauci’s dismay at the “venom” of some of the attacks, also expressed concern about the general climate surrounding science, which seems unlikely to change after Fauci leaves government service in December.
“Public health and science itself has been pilloried. There is an enormous fatigue, resignation and sheer exhaustion in the entire scientific community. People are quitting their jobs, or when they are keeping their jobs, they are keeping their heads down,” he said.
It’s striking to think of how different things seemed just a couple of years ago.
At the outset of the pandemic in early 2020, Fauci was largely seen as a reassuring national presence. The White House briefings he led became required viewing for many Americans as COVID-19 took hold.
A New Yorker magazine article in April 2020 carried a headline about how Fauci had become “America’s doctor.” The story noted that Fauci’s approval rating in one poll was close to 80 percent.
In time, however, he would be lambasted as a “disaster” by then-President Trump, the sixth of seven presidents he served; he would require a personal security detail to protect him and his family from numerous threats; and he would become one of the leading targets of conservatives in general.
On Wednesday, two days after Fauci announced he would soon end his 38-year stint as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) told an Orlando rally, “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has frequently crossed swords with Fauci over the specifics of U.S. funding for research in Wuhan, China, complained that if the scientist had been “a family doctor in Peoria,” then the allegedly baleful effects of his advice would have affected only “the people foolish enough to choose him as a doctor.”
“Once you put him in charge of the world, it all trickles down,” Paul added, according to a series of tweets from NBC News reporter Kate Santaliz.
Conservative media figures have piled on too.
Megyn Kelly, complaining about an equivocal answer Fauci give about whether he would comply with a hypothetical subpoena from Republicans in Congress, told her podcast listeners on Wednesday , “F— you, Dr. Fauci.”
Given commentary like that, it’s no surprise that 80 percent approval ratings are a thing of the past.
An Economist-YouGov poll in June found 43 percent of Americans viewed Fauci favorably, but 41 percent viewed him unfavorably. Among Republicans, he was viewed favorably by just 18 percent and unfavorably by 70 percent.
Fauci’s defenders don’t claim that he has been omniscient or infallible.
In the pandemic’s earliest days, he argued against the need for the general public to wear masks, later changing his tune dramatically.
The pros and cons of other initiatives, notably the widespread shuttering of schools, will be debated for years, perhaps decades — though in that case, Fauci has noted that he himself spoke of the need to try to minimize negative impacts on children.
Even so, most people in the public health sphere note, firstly, that Fauci was faced with an almost impossible task: Trying to communicate clear messages about a new and deadly virus about which much was unknown.
Secondly, they say instances where recommendations changed — such as on mask-wearing — demonstrate scientists doing exactly what they’re supposed to do: incorporate new information into their views.
“Changing guidance is the bedrock of sound public health policy,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore City Health Commissioner. “When new research comes out, the guidance would change accordingly, or when circumstances change, the guidance would also change.”
For figures such as Wen, the kind of attacks aimed at Fauci — and at her, as she became a prominent media presence during the pandemic — are far from abstractions.
On Tuesday, a Texas man was sentenced to six months in prison for threatening Wen. Prosecutors said the man, 52-year-old Scott Eli Harris, was outraged by her backing for COVID-19 vaccines and sent her a message threatening she would be shot.
In the message, Harris allegedly claimed to be an Army veteran and a sniper, according to a CBS News report.
On Thursday, charges were unsealed in another case where a man allegedly threatened Wen.
Earlier this month, a West Virginia man received a three-year prison term for emailing a death threat to Fauci.
“It’s really hard,” Wen told this column. “We are trying to do our jobs, we are trying to advise our patients about how they can keep themselves and their families safe … [and] we are threatened with our lives and worried about our own families.”
Threats aside, the sheer intensity of the divide around Fauci disconcerts plenty of political experts too.
“It is one of the best exhibits of just how deep this polarization is, because you take someone who would not normally be viewed through a political lens, and instead that seems to be almost the only way he is viewed,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
“He is a folk hero among Democrats and a milder version of Satan among Republicans.”
Fauci, who is 81, has said that it is time to “pursue the next chapter of my career.”
But the nation won’t so easily close the book on the currents that have swirled around him during COVID.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.