'It's No Surprise' Some States Are Seeing COVID-19 Spikes, Former CDC Director Says

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A health care worker wearing a protective suit attends to a coronavirus patient at the intensive care unit. (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)
A health care worker wearing a protective suit attends to a coronavirus patient at the intensive care unit. (Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)

More than 45,000 new coronavirus cases were reported on Sunday alone as much of the United States struggles to contain the spread of the virus.

The seven-day average of new cases hit a record high for the 27th straight day, and many states in the South and West reported new highs in their seven-day case averages just in the last few days. Public health officials in some states are warning that the resurgent virus could overwhelm their health care systems.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, says “it’s no surprise” that these states are experiencing spikes because they reopened businesses too early and in places where cases were increasing.

“When you lean into a punch, you get hit hard, and if you take one step too far forward, too fast with COVID-19, you're going to have to take two or three steps backward,” he says. “This is a big challenge, and it's going to continue for weeks, if not months.”

The Fourth of July weekend was also marked by President Trump’s speech Saturday where he said the U.S. had “learned how to put out the flame” of the coronavirus.

Frieden and other public health experts are calling for a national strategy that holds every level of government accountable and prioritizes transparency on where and how the coronavirus is spreading.

“We need straight talk about what is going to happen in the coming weeks and months,” Frieden says. “Coronavirus will continue to spread until we stop it. It's not going to stop on its own.”

Interview Highlights 

On if states should allow restaurants and businesses to open where cases are increasing

“[New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo] made the right call here. He decided not to allow restaurants to open in New York City for indoor service, and that's exactly the right thing. What we've seen from around the country is, first off, some places open bars. That's a really bad idea. You've got lots of people in an indoor space for many hours mixing freely and not wearing masks. That's a formula for the spread of COVID-19. We've seen many outbreaks related to bars. But what we're seeing in places that closed bars and kept restaurants open were that restaurants function kind of similar to a bar. Lots of people came in and spent a long time, didn't wear masks and mixed, and that's a formula for widespread transmission of the virus.

“Unfortunately, when it's spreading widely, you really have to increase physical distance quite substantially to cool the virus down. When you have explosive spread in a place like Phoenix, where as many as one in 30 people may be infectious today, you're going to have to have people extremely physically distant and that's going to have to continue for weeks and weeks. It took six to eight weeks for New York City cases to cool down.”

On if prior infection makes you immune to the coronavirus

“This is one of the most important unanswered questions about coronavirus. We don't know whether prior infection protects you, whether it protects you well and for a long time, whether it protects you from getting sick or just infected. What we are learning is that there is a strong response of the body to infection in some cases, not in all cases, but in many cases. We still don't know whether that results in protective immunity, and if so, how long that will last.”

On Trump’s claims that the U.S. will likely have a therapeutic or vaccine solution by the end of the year 

“On the one hand, we are learning some ways to treat people better. We're learning how to give oxygen, how to position patients, some medications that appear to make the disease less severe for people who are very, very ill. On the other hand, a vaccine is a very complicated undertaking and there cannot be any compromising on safety for vaccines. No cutting corners. There's already so much suspicion about vaccines. We need complete transparency at every step of the way.

“We hope there'll be a vaccine, but getting a vaccine isn't simple. It means figuring out the dose, figuring out if it's safe, if it's effective, who's going to get it first, getting it produced, figuring out who's going to pay for it and distributing it, tracking for adverse reactions. It's a major undertaking and needs to be done very carefully and with full transparency.”

On how travel affects the spread of coronavirus 

“It's certainly the case that travel from places with a lot of COVID-19 is a major source of infection in places that have cleared it. And what we will see inevitably and are seeing already around the world and potentially around the U.S. are restrictions on travel from places that don't have it under control by places that do have it under control. It's almost unthinkable that something like that would happen in the United States, but on the other hand, if the differences are so enormous, it's almost unthinkable that that wouldn't happen here.

“On the one hand, we do want economic activity returning, and if people are traveling among areas with similar levels of spread, that reduces the likelihood that you'll increase the spread. But anytime there's travel from a place with a lot of COVID-19 to a place with not much COVID-19, you have a high risk of it spreading.”

On what he would do to address racial disparities in the pandemic 

“We need to do three things. First, reduce exposures. There's far too much exposure in Black, Hispanic, [Latinx] communities from essential work and from multi-family households or multigenerational households where there can be a lot of spread. Second, we need to address some of the underlying health conditions that are driving the increased vulnerability to infection and severe infection, such as uncontrolled diabetes. And third, we need to improve access to health and social services because there is much less access to health care, and even among people with health insurance, much worse outcomes in African American and Latinx populations.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 6, 2020.


Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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