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What The U.S. Needs To Do To Control The COVID-19 Surge

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What strategy can the United States use against the pandemic now? New infections hit another record yesterday, exceeding 50,000 in a single day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, says we're heading for 100,000 per day unless something changes. The president took questions from Fox Business yesterday and offered his own forecast.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think that at some point, that's going to sort of just disappear, I hope.

BLAKE BURMAN: You still believe so? Disappear...

TRUMP: Well, I do. I do. Yeah, sure, at some point. And I think we're going to have a vaccine very soon, too.

INSKEEP: You ask what more can be done? We've called Dr. Richard Besser. He served as acting director of the Centers for Disease Control during an earlier pandemic. He is now president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which we should note is an NPR sponsor. Dr. Besser, good morning.

RICHARD BESSER: Good morning, Steve. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Glad you're with us. Dr. Fauci was on All Things Considered yesterday, and he said he used that 100,000 figure because he wanted to jolt people. So I think we are jolted. What are some things the U.S. has been doing wrong?

BESSER: Well, you know, I think Dr. Fauci's 100,000 - it's an important number, but it's not a foreordained, predetermined number. What we do really matters. And one of the things that we're doing wrong, Steve, is that we have this clash of messages. You know, every public health leader in the nation is saying that this is early days of the pandemic. What we do really matters. If we go slow and follow the plan from public health, we can slowly open the economy. But on the other side, you're seeing mixed messages from politicians. And you see some politicians from red states and blue states saying follow public health and others saying, well, we hope it'll go away; get back to work and get back to your social lives. That's a very dangerous situation.

INSKEEP: How damaging has that political divide been, particularly when it comes to something like masks, which experts are promoting but the president has declined to wear them and it became a symbol of your political affiliation?

BESSER: It's extremely dangerous. One of the biggest challenges during this pandemic is that we're not hearing from CDC every day. You know, during the swine flu pandemic when I was leading CDC, the most important tool I had was the ability to have a conversation with the public and explain what we were learning, explain what we were asking people to do. When there was a change in guidance, like we saw here from no masks to, really, we all need to wear masks, we could explain why that was going on and why people needed to follow that.

Right now, we're seeing mixed messages where some politicians are saying, yeah, you know, it's your choice; you should wear a mask; it's a good thing to do, but they're not modeling that behavior. They're not wearing masks. And when that happens, you're going to see people who support them and follow them just doing the same thing.

INSKEEP: We are seeing some efforts to adapt. More and more Republican leaders have publicly endorsed masks in just the last few days. A few states that have tried to open wide - open up widely are backing off a little bit. Is this adaptation enough?

BESSER: Well, I don't think it's enough. I think that one of the critical pieces that's missing is the kind of data that's necessary at the neighborhood level to make sure that everyone in America is protected and has that opportunity for protection. You know, if you look at who's been hit hardest during this pandemic so far, every community's been hit hard, but Black Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, people who are essential workers have been getting hit so incredibly hard.

And we need data down at the ZIP code level, broken down by race and ethnicity so we can see, you know, even in states like New Jersey and New York, where the numbers are looking better and better, we need to know it's every neighborhood seeing the same benefit. Does every person have the support they need so that if they're infected or if they've been exposed to someone who's infected, they can isolate or quarantine safely? You know, we're seeing the federal supports drying up this summer. And it's going to make it very hard for people who need to go to work to stay home if they're at risk.

INSKEEP: Now, to get that neighborhood-level data, I'm imagining a lot more testing, a lot more contact tracers, a lot of other health officials out there at work. Suppose you had those resources in place. What would a national - truly national strategy look like?

BESSER: Yeah. A truly national strategy would look something like Europe, where, you know, you use the lockdown approach to drive the total number of cases down to something that could be managed by a public health approach. And that public health approach, as you mentioned, is testing, tracking to figure out who people who are infected had contact with and then providing all of the supports - the social supports, the income supports, nutrition supports, child care - so that people can isolate and quarantine safely.

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BESSER: If you do that, then - you know, and the number of cases is manageable, then you can drive this pandemic into the ground. That's something...

INSKEEP: Well, I'm...

BESSER: ...That we need to see in America.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad to hear that the dog where you are agrees with your approach, Dr. Besser.

BESSER: She agrees with me most of the time.

INSKEEP: Well, we have to get our laughter where we can, even though it's a very grim subject. Dr. Besser, thanks very much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

BESSER: Thank you, Steve. Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Richard Besser served as the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is also - he is now the president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.