Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert who has become a key figure in the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, praised South Carolina for its handling of the virus as it prepares to further relax its restrictions next week.
"You have put things in place that I think would optimize your capability of reopening," Fauci said Tuesday during a Senate health committee meeting.
He characterized South Carolina's response as something he would "almost want to clone."
The laudatory comment came after U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., posed a question nearly three hours into a hearing before the Republican-led Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The panel was titled "COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School."
Scott's question to Fauci began as a monologue in which Scott summarized efforts made in the Palmetto State thus far to address the novel coronavirus, where state health officials on Monday confirmed a total of 7,792 cases and 346 fatalities.
"Our hospital capacity is actually better now than it was when the pandemic started," Scott claimed.
While the coronavirus pandemic has caused the number of patients in hospitals to decline, reports show it has also pushed many health systems in South Carolina to the financial brink.
Scott said the state did not set out with the goal of preventing every fatality from the virus.
"That would be unrealistic. It is impossible," Scott said.
Scott added the state did not set out to implement quarantine directives meant to last until there was a vaccine in place.
"That would take too long," he said.
Scott highlighted recent efforts by the state to obtain more contact tracers, who are individuals tasked with determining the spread of the virus.
He emphasized the state plans to test 100 percent of nursing homes and staff members that take care of nursing home residents by the end of this month.
"While I respect the need for caution, we are too often presented with a false dichotomy of either saving our economy or saving lives," Scott said.
Then, he asked Fauci his question: "What else would you suggest that we could do to protect our most vulnerable populations?"
Fauci offered no objections to the rosy picture Scott described, even though experts have warned South Carolina must dramatically ramp up its efforts to detect new cases of COVID-19 and stop its spread.
"You gave a really very eloquent description of what I think would be a model way to approach this," Fauci said.
Fauci said South Carolina appears ready to "progress carefully" with its reopening plans, but he still urged caution. The state needs to keep its most vulnerable populations in mind as it begins relaxing its restrictions, he said, particularly the elderly, individuals with underlying conditions and minority groups.
"Protect them right up until the very end of the relaxation of your mitigation," Fauci said.
The comments were a contrast to the sharp warning Fauci issued at the beginning of the hearing, when he said opening too soon would cause "some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery."
Fauci, a member of the coronavirus task force charged with shaping the response to COVID-19, testified via video conference after self-quarantining as a White House staffer tested positive for the virus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.