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Expert: COVID-19 surge likely to continue for weeks

Shawn Donnan
Bloomberg News

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 CDC 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 reopenings 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: 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, as air travel slowly resumes worldwide.

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.

In an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation on Sunday,” Gottlieb said that in the absence of requirements for the “universal masking” of people in affected states the spread of the virus was likely to continue growing.

‘Simplest Intervention’: 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%.

The current record rates of newly reported cases at 40,000 or more in recent days likely reflected a far bigger outbreak, Gottlieb said.

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.

Encouraging signs: 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, as 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.