The US Can Eradicate COVID-19 If We Want To, Former Obama Health Official Says

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In this Oct. 24, 2013 file photo, Andy Slavitt, group executive vice president for Optum/QSSI testifies on Capitol Hill. (Evan Vucci/AP)
In this Oct. 24, 2013 file photo, Andy Slavitt, group executive vice president for Optum/QSSI testifies on Capitol Hill. (Evan Vucci/AP)

More than 7 million Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus — and the president of the United States is among them.

The U.S. has more coronavirus infections than any other country in the world, and by far the highest death toll with more than 208,000 lives lost. The U.S. makes up 4% of the world’s population but has seen 20% of the pandemic deaths.

Inside the White House, many critics say they could have prevented the outbreak by taking basic precautions, and the virus could have been stopped in its tracks if there had been the political will.

Andy Slavitt, who led the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Obama, says the U.S. is always about four to six weeks away from eliminating the coronavirus — if we throw the kitchen sink at the problem. He wrote about this in a July article for Medium.

“One way to look at what's going on is to look at the numbers. You specifically drill in on a place like Africa. Africa is a continent with 1.3 billion people, and they have about 30,000 deaths,” Slavitt says. “What that should tell us is that what we have ahead of us to do is not all that high tech, not all that complex.”

Eradicating the virus in the U.S. will involve a very simple formula — “we just have to decide if we want to do it,” Slavitt says.

“It really involves a little bit of discipline and a little bit of sacrifice,” he says. “It's all about very simply not breathing near one another in crowded places. In the scheme of viruses, that's a pretty easy formula, considering that there are viruses that are much more contagious. So we can do this with a series of actions that have been demonstrated around the world.”

Slavitt’s kitchen sink is made up of six parts, including universal mask-wearing and a near total lockdown close to 90%.

“We have to stop fighting each other about masks and start listening to each other,” he says. “We know that there are plenty of people, large majorities of people, that if told that it will save people's lives, will wear masks.”

It starts with the president wearing a mask and getting all the governors on board with mask wearing, which will demonstrate to the American public why it's important, Slavitt says.

In terms of shutting down the economy again and asking people to stay home, Slavitt says we have to do more than we did in the spring. Back in March and April, only about 50% of the U.S. population stayed home — this time it needs to be closer to 90%. That means keeping more people home, including some essential workers.

“In effect, what it meant is the virus circulated much more significantly than we knew. So a number of us are staying home, but many of us were not,” he says. “So if we want to do this and take this seriously, we really have to actually do what they've done in other countries, which is be much more limited in terms of how many people are circulating.”

But many have raised concerns about what further lockdowns could do to an economy that is already in tatters. Slavitt says the question we have to ask ourselves is, are we willing to endure some short-term pain for long-term gain?

“Other countries have been able to see the benefit of some short-term pain, and then they are much more open. It doesn't mean they're off the hook, but they're much more open,” he says. “We haven't even had that dialog in the U.S.”

Interview Highlights

On a near total lockdown close to 90%

“Now the truth is, there's a lot of good news in that there are things that are relatively safe. So individual stores, individual shops, places where people are one-on-one, small family gatherings, those things are relatively safe. Remember, we're not concerned about one case of coronavirus. We're concerned about hotspots. There are going to be cases, and we have enough tests for cases. We have enough isolation capability for cases. What we don't have is enough ability to keep schools and universities reliably open if there are outbreaks. So we have to prevent the outbreaks and accept the fact that we can manage the cases aggressively when they come up.”

"We can make a decision that as a society, we're going to try to come together and beat this thing just like we would beat any enemy.”

Andy Slavitt

On what a 90% lockdown would mean for the economy

“What I'm suggesting is that the options have never been put on the table for the American public. The American public has sort of been told this is the only way to do it. And we really need to have a national conversation about is it worth it to have six weeks of short-term pain to get the viral level down to down to near zero? And are we willing to support the businesses and everybody that will go through financial pain during those six weeks? That's a smarter way to do it, in my opinion, because the alternative is we have this economy that limps along endlessly. People aren't traveling. People aren't buying cars. People aren't signing leases. People aren't doing really significant amounts of hiring. They're not going to do that unless they feel safer.

“Now, I talked about this in the summer very specifically because my suggestion was that people wanted schools to open in the fall, they had that in their power. Just don't go to bars, wear masks, bring the viral count down, and schools will be able to safely open. We've yet to be able to do that. But my point is, anytime we want to, it's really about six weeks away.”

On if the U.S. has the political and cultural will to follow his plan 

“Well, we may not, and that's something we have to face. But look, we're talking here about are we willing to take some measures for six weeks that would save hundreds of thousands of lives? We're, relatively speaking, very unaccustomed to sacrifice anymore in this country. If you told my grandparents or I'm guessing yours or many other people listening that they had to sacrifice for six weeks, that would save hundreds of thousands of lives and get the economy back, you know, these are people who lived through a 10-year depression. They lived through who knows what kind of turmoil in their own country if they came to the U.S. They lived through a 6-year world war.

“And, you know, we talk about the freedom that we want to have to not wear masks and the freedom we have to free speech and assemble in churches. Where do people think those freedoms came from? Those freedoms came from our responsibility to building a culture, building a society that does require a little bit of sacrifice. And we can't lie to people and tell people this will go away if we don't take some measures. And so we have to choose those measures. That measure can be what we've chosen, which is sort of an endless, no end in sight approach, which allows us to limp along, and some parts of society doing quite well, but unfortunately, many parts of society, people who are out there working every day and are required to, not doing very well and many of them at serious risk. Or we can make a decision that as a society, we're going to try to come together and beat this thing just like we would beat any enemy.”

On why people wouldn’t just wait for a vaccine

“I think people have to understand what a vaccine will and won't do. The vaccine doesn't carry the promise of eradicating COVID-19. The vaccine carries the promise of being a great tool in our arsenal. It will dramatically reduce the risk of transmission, but the question we don't know is how much immunity will it confer on what percentage of the population or for how long? We should understand that it's more likely to be like an influenza vaccine, which works on [40% to 50%] of the population with some levels of effectiveness, but not perfect.

"And so it will make things easier. It will make things better. But the U.S. has a habit of waiting for these high-tech scientific solutions to rescue us, and sometimes that works, but sometimes it requires a little bit on our part. And I'm not suggesting that we do anything other than spend six weeks looking out for one another and demonstrating that the people who live among us aren't just strangers we don't care about, but they're people whose lives we're willing to save.”

Elie Levine produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 2, 2020.


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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


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Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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