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A surge in coronavirus that has seen record numbers of new U.S. cases in recent days is likely to continue for weeks after states moved too soon to reopen their economies, two of the country’s leading public health experts said Sunday.
The warnings by Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control from 2009 to 2017, and Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, came as a new poll showed confidence in how the U.S. is dealing with COVID-19 has fallen.
In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Frieden said the virus continued to have the “upper hand,” even as he acknowledged Americans had become tired of the restrictions needed to contain it.
“We’re all sick and tired of staying home. But you know what? The virus is not tired of making us sick,” he said.
“We are moving too fast,” Frieden said of states that remained eager to continue phased re-openings as cases continue to rise. “It’s like leaning into a left hook. You are going to get hit hard. And that’s what is happening.”
2.5 million cases in the United States
U.S. coronavirus cases now exceed 2.5 million, with over 125,000 reported fatalities—in both cases the world’s highest. The country’s inability to control the spread of the virus seems likely to result in U.S. citizens being banned from traveling to Europe, for example, where cases are down in some cases 90% from their peak.
A move by the EU to restrict travel from the U.S. was the inevitable result of the continuing spread in America, Gottlieb said. Growing restrictions on travel within the U.S. could come next, he said.
A CBS poll released on Sunday showed 62% of those surveyed said U.S. efforts to deal with the virus are “going badly,” up from 57% in early June. The percentage who said President Donald Trump was doing a “good job” on the virus was 41%, the lowest of five polls taken since late March.
The survey of 2,009 U.S. adults was taken June 23-26. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
Alex Azar, the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the “window is closing” to control the spread of the virus.
“This is a very, very serious situation,” Azar said, a downbeat assessment contradicted by Vice President Mike Pence in a later interview.
‘Much better place,’ claims Pence
Pence, who’s visiting Texas on Sunday, played down the current surge in states, stressing that it affected just 4% of U.S. counties and had been caused by more cases in young people, who were less likely to suffer serious health consequences.
“We’re in a much better place to respond to these outbreaks than we were four months ago,” Pence told CBS’s “Face the Nation,” noting that the nation is testing about 500,000 people a day and has a greater capacity for surveillance and community testing.
“We’ve also expanded our health-care capacity across the country, literally seeing delivered billions in personal protective equipment, ventilators,” he said. “And most importantly in this moment is we’ve seen the development and distribution of therapeutics that have literally been saving lives around the country.”
Pence also dismissed concerns that the increase in new infections had been driven by the rapid easing of public health restrictions and the Trump administration’s push to reopen the economy rapidly with November’s election in mind.
The importance of masks
“There’s a temptation to associate the new cases in the Sunbelt with reopening, but it’s important to remember” that states including Florida and Texas actually began to open up in early May and avoided a spike in infections “for the better part of six weeks,” he said.
Also on “Face the Nation,” Gottlieb said the spread of the virus was likely to continue growing in the absence of requirements for the “universal masking” of people in affected states.
Requiring people to wear masks is “the simplest intervention that we could take” to stop the spread of the virus, Gottlieb said. Polls, including the CBS survey, show the issue of wearing masks has become highly politicized in the U.S.
While the virus has ebbed in the Northeast, states like Florida, Texas and Arizona have seen virus cases spike in recent days. Other measures, including hospitalizations and deaths, haven’t risen as much.
On Sunday, Florida officials said the state’s coronavirus cases rose 6.4% from a day earlier. Cumulative hospitalizations of Florida residents rose 0.8%. Cases in Arizona jumped by 5.5%, above the state’s average of a 4.4% daily increase over the past week.
The current record rates of newly reported cases at 40,000 or more in recent days likely reflected a far bigger outbreak, Gottlieb said.
Some encouraging signs
By the CDC’s own reckoning, the real number of infections was 5 to 10 times that being reported, Gottlieb said, and that meant the real rate of new infections was likely to be a “quarter-million” each day.
Frieden said that while there were potentially encouraging signs in the growing share of younger people—who are less likely to suffer severe complications—among new reported cases, that shouldn’t be a reason to grow complacent.
“What starts in the young doesn’t stay in the young,” he said, since younger people, often asymptomatic, can spread the coronavirus to more-vulnerable individuals including family members and co-workers.
It was false to dismiss the recent surge in daily cases as a function of a ramping up in testing, Frieden said. A lower death rate was also potentially misleading, he said, with reported deaths likely to lag a surge in cases by about a month.