Donald Trump launched an extraordinary attack on his own top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, arguing against the doctor’s claim that high rates of infection in the US stem from a less aggressive reaction to the virus in terms of economic shutdowns and stay-at-home orders.

“Wrong!” countered the president as he retweeted a video of Fauci making the point in recent congressional testimony.

Fauci had explained that differentiations between surging US infections and a sharp decrease seen across Europe could be explained by the different reactions to the virus. Fauci said most European countries shut their economies down by 95%, while the US only shut down its economy by half.

Trump countered: “We have more cases because we have tested far more than any other country, 60,000,000. If we tested less, there would be less cases. How did Italy, France & Spain do? Now Europe sadly has flare ups. Most of our governors worked hard & smart. We will come back STRONG!”

But Fauci’s point accurately describes the US situation. While some states followed Centers for Disease Control guidelines when they started to re-open, many did not, leading to a surge in infections in many southern and western states, Fauci explained.

“There are some states that did it very well, there are some states that did not,” he said, adding that many were doing better now thanks to improved testing.

As Trump faces November’s presidential election, he has been sinking badly in the polls against his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. Much of that loss of support can probably be traced to Trump’s lackluster response to the pandemic, which has now cost more than 150,000 American lives and seen the US contract more than 4.5 million cases – by far the largest figures in the world.

The spat between Trump and his own health official sparked some withering condemnation on Twitter.

“Let’s be very clear: this is not normal & we should not treat it as normal for a president to be publicly attacking his own top government adviser on infectious diseases,” said the commentator and broadcaster Mehdi Hasan.

As numbers have surged again in the US in recent weeks, the crisis seems to be getting worse and the Trump administration still appears to be struggling to come up with a coherent response.

Trump’s latest criticism of Fauci comes as plans to reopen schools and universities are being thrown into disarray by the virtually unchecked spread of Covid-19 across parts of the US before the academic year.

Doubts about the US school system’s ability to cope with the pandemic grew last week after a high school student at Greenfield Central in Indiana – one of the first states to reopen – tested positive on the first day of class. Anyone who came within 6ft of the student for more than 15 minutes was told to isolate for two weeks.

“We knew it was a when, not if,” the superintendent, Harold Olin, told the New York Times, but they were “very shocked it was on day one”.

Of the 25 largest school districts in the US, all but six have announced they will start remotely. Some states, including the coronavirus hotspots Florida and Texas, anticipate in-person classes despite strong misgivings or objections from teachers’ unions, who have threatened to support strikes if their members feel their health is being put at risk.

Face masks are shown for sale with backpacks and back-to-school supplies at a Walmart store in Encinitas, California. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

In California, schools in two-thirds of the state have been barred from reopening in person.

Against the backdrop of chaos and widely differing responses, Trump has continued to promote a return to in-person tuition despite the school attended by his youngest son, Barron, receiving a prohibition order until at least 1 October.

Barron Trump attends St Andrew’s Episcopal, a private school in Potomac, Maryland, that falls under the jurisdiction of Montgomery county. “At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers,” the region’s health officer, Travis Gayles, said in a statement last week.

The virus is even making its way through the halls of Congress.

Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democratic congressman, said on Saturday that he had tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a Washington DC hearing with the Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, who also tested positive and had been a vocal critic of wearing masks – just like Trump.

The development prompted Grijalva to launch an attack on his fellow members from across the aisle.

“While I cannot blame anyone directly for this, this week has shown that there are some members of Congress who fail to take this crisis seriously. Numerous Republican members routinely strut around the Capitol without a mask to selfishly make a political statement at the expense of their colleagues, staff, and their families,” he said.

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