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2/2 Fauci says U.S. political divisions contributed to 500,000 dead from COVID-19 Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Fauci addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington 2/2

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said political divisiveness contributed significantly to the "stunning" U.S. COVID-19 death toll, which on Monday surpassed 500,000 lives lost.

The country had recorded more than 28 million COVID-19 cases and 500,054 fatalities as of Monday afternoon, according to a Reuters tally of public health data.

In an interview with Reuters, Fauci on Monday said the pandemic arrived in the United States as the country was riven by political divisions in which wearing a mask became a political statement rather than a public health measure.

"Even under the best of circumstances, this would have been a very serious problem," Fauci said, noting that despite strong adherence to public health measures, countries such as Germany and the UK struggled with the virus.

"However, that does not explain how a rich and sophisticated country can have the most percentage of deaths and be the hardest-hit country in the world," said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top adviser to President Joe Biden. "That I believe should not have happened."

While the United States has just about 4% of the global population, it has recorded nearly 20% of all COVID-19 deaths.

"This is the worst thing that's happened to this country with regard to the health of the nation in over 100 years," Fauci said, adding that decades from now, people will be talking about "that horrible year of 2020, and maybe 2021."

For most of 2020, Fauci served on then President Donald Trump's White House Coronavirus Task Force, a job that often put him at odds with the president, who sought to downplay the severity of pandemic despite contracting COVID-19 himself, and refused to issue a national mask mandate.

Trump at times even attacked Fauci's credibility, undermining his public health messaging.

The nation's failure cannot all be laid at the feet of Donald Trump, Fauci said. "But the lack of involvement at the very top of the leadership in trying to do everything that was science-based was clearly detrimental to the effort."

His personal low point came when several states and cities disregarded the Task Force's phased recommendations for how to safely reopen the country after spring lockdowns.

He called that disregard by several governors and mayors "incomprehensible to me (when) you could see right in front of your eyes what was happening."

"When the American spirit is so divided, that really, really made me sad," he said.

Fauci said the emergence of more contagious variants of the coronavirus, especially ones from South Africa and Brazil that have been shown to reduce the immunity from natural infections and vaccines, have made it challenging to predict when the nation will be able to put the pandemic behind it.

Fauci and Biden have said the United States should return to something approaching pre-pandemic normal life around Christmas. That could change, he cautioned.

The variants also change the equation when it comes to herd immunity, in which a population becomes protected from infection because of high levels of immunity from vaccines or infections.

Asked whether that is still achievable, Fauci said, "I think we can get herd immunity at least against getting sick."


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