Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, participates via video conference during a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine on Tuesday warned that the U.S. response to COVID-19 is lagging as he pressed top Trump administration health officials to learn lessons from other nations when it comes to combating the pandemic.

 “The death rate in the United States — especially when compared with other nations — is unacceptable, isn’t it?” the Virginia Democrat asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday. 

Kaine noted that the death rate in the United States far outpaces that of other nations, including South Korea. 

“Yes, of course,” Fauci told Kaine. “A death rate that high is something that in any manner of form in my mind is unacceptable.” More than 80,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. 

Asked by Kaine whether the United States must do better in its response, Fauci replied, “of course, you always have to do better.” 

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, questioned Trump administration officials during a Senate hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday. (Screengrab)

In order to safely reopen the U.S. economy, Kaine said, “we have to learn the lessons of nations that have managed this well.” He stressed that access to health care will be a critical component of fighting the pandemic. 

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, millions of Americans already lacked access to health care, he said. “The massive job losses in the last months threatened to take health insurance away from millions more and President Trump is doing all he can to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which would take health insurance away from tens of millions more.” 

Fauci warned lawmakers there could be a surge of COVID-19 cases if states, cities and regions disregard the government’s “checkpoints” on when and how to pull back from mitigation measures.

“If that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery,” he said. 

“We would almost turn the clock back, rather than going forward.”

Overall, Fauci said that some parts of the country are seeing spikes in infection, while the curve looks flat or is trending downward in other areas.

“I think we are going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have, by any means, total control of this outbreak,” Fauci said. 

His remarks were markedly more guarded than the more optimistic portrait Trump outlined in remarks at a White House briefing Monday. 

Trump said the number of coronavirus cases were going down “almost everywhere,” even though many states show a steady number of new cases. An internal report obtained by NBC shows cases spiking in some communities.

“We have met the moment and we have prevailed,” Trump told reporters at the White House briefing Monday, with tables displaying testing and treatment materials on either side of his lectern. “Americans do whatever it takes to find solutions, pioneer breakthroughs, and harness the energies we need to achieve total victory.”

Fauci gave a guarded but optimistic update on the ultimate development of a vaccine for COVID-19. The process is moving faster than on any other vaccine in history, and there are at least eight vaccines in various stages of development. Researchers may know if they are successful as early as late fall or early winter. 

“We have many candidates and hope to have multiple winners,” he said. 

Fauci predicted it is “more likely than not” that one or more of them will work well enough to provide herd immunity from the virus, while admitting there are still significant research hurdles to overcome in ensuring the vaccines are safe for wide distribution. 

Fauci admitted “there is no guarantee that the vaccine is actually going to be effective,” but said he is “cautiously optimistic.”