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Grim new projections forecast ‘explosive growth’ in COVID-19 cases, deaths

With the U.S. coronavirus death toll now over 68,000, some fatality projections referenced by the Trump administration have already been surpassed. Roughly 2,000 Americans are dying from the disease every day -- and that number could still rise. Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Laurie Garrett joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest predictions and what could be done to reduce them.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's talk about some of these new reports about the projected death tolls and how it may be worse than what the president and some others had said recently, and what can be done to slow the spread of COVID.

    Laurie Garrett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and writer whose career has been devoted to tracking and reporting on infectious diseases.

    Laurie Garrett, thank you so much for joining us.

    We do have these apparently two new grim forecasts today. I want to ask about the CDC report yet. We haven't seen all the numbers. The White House is saying it's not their numbers, but they are talking about, by June 1, 3,000 deaths a day. They're talking about up to 200,000 new cases a day.

    This is — this is the wrong direction.

  • Laurie Garrett:

    Absolutely, Judy. And it's a huge, explosive growth they're predicting.

    And it's basically — if you look at the distribution that they are imagining, it's really the Prairie states, the sort of Mississippi Valley, and the Deep South states.

    And it seems, I think — though we don't have access to the raw data that they are working with, but it does seem to coincide with these outbreaks that have been occurring inside of meatpacking plants, nursing homes, Veterans Administration hospitals, that have claimed large numbers of workers in those facilities, but haven't yet generalized into the larger community.

    And I think they're projecting that there will be generalization, that a typical — an infected meatpacker, for example, might then infect their family members, some of those family members may infect local storekeepers, and so on.

    So I think they're imagining a pretty explosive set of growths, all in fairly small remote areas, and, in many cases, rural counties.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    And do you think it's the same explanation for this new model that we are told is coming today from the University of Washington, where they are projecting the total number of deaths in the U.S. at 135,000, way beyond what it was before?

    Do you — is your reading of it same factors at work here?

  • Laurie Garrett:

    Again, we haven't been given a lot of the details that are used for the analyses yet.

    But, yes, I think they're also looking at higher-than-expected new infections and deaths in this swathe of states, that is, the Mississippi Valley region, all the way up to the Canadian border.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you to listen to some things that we have heard from President Trump in recent weeks, and then — and ask you a question coming out of that. Let's listen.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The data suggests that, nationwide, we have passed the peak on new cases.

    A minimum, if we did nothing, would have been 1.6. If you cut that in half, you are talking about 800,000, 900,000, a million people dying. But we did a lot of work. And I think, right now, we're hitting at probably around 60,000, maybe 65,000.

    I think we have done a great job. As you know, minimal numbers were — minimal numbers were going to be 100,000 people. Minimal numbers were going to be 100,000 people. And we're going to be hopefully far below that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Laurie, I think a lot of people want to know, how is it that these projections could have been so off, if it turns out to be these new numbers are right?

  • Laurie Garrett:

    Well, first of all, this is not a stagnant situation. We have been trying to respond to the virus.

    So, measures have been taken in various key states, New York, Washington state, California, Massachusetts, taking very strong steps to try and mitigate the spread by having people go into lockdown.

    Conversely, we have a number of states that have decided to actually back off. The state of Ohio today just said that the governor wants companies to be required to report the names of workers who don't go to the jobs as they open up.

    So, that's, you know, the government is demanding that you must risk your life. You must go into a meatpacking plant. You must go on to a job site. So, we have a lot of actions being taken that make the situation quite fluid.

    And whatever the snapshot of a moment is that you make your projections off of is, by definition, going to be a different snapshot tomorrow, and a different one the next day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They're working, and yet the picture is more complicated than that.

    What is the message, then, Laurie Garrett, to the American people from all this? That, clearly, that they need to continue to practice the social distancing, handwashing, just the basic element that we have been practicing, but what more can Americans be doing?

  • Laurie Garrett:

    Well, I think, at this point, if I were the governor of any of these states that is projected to see significant increases, I would be ordering a lot of testing that is targeted to give me some policy guidance.

    I would test in meatpacking plants. I would test in school settings, if there are schools still open, every nursing home, every assisted living center, any place where I still have people co-housed, Veterans Administration centers.

    And I would want to know, do I have a trend day by day that shows increased transmission? And, if I do, then that is a targeted community. That is where I direct my resources. I have to solve this problem immediately.

    If we don't take smart steps, guide our testing in wise ways, then we're just going to be flailing around, racing behind the virus, which will be consistently, Judy, way ahead of us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one other thing, Laurie Garrett.

    You have said for a long time that Americans have never sufficiently invested in public health, and that that is what is underlying so much of this.

  • Laurie Garrett:

    Absolutely.

    I mean, just look at — one of the key markers that indicates whether or not you as an individual are likely to have a severe outcome if infected and potentially succumb to COVID disease is hypertension.

    Well, hypertension is the cheapest, easiest intervention imaginable. You know, just slap the cuff on, check your blood pressure. And we have a raft of medications that will help you. We know how to bring down high blood pressure.

    That is a perfect marker for lack of access to consistent public health interventions and medical care. And when you look at the racial distribution and the class distribution on who is dying right now across America of COVID, you can see it is exactly the same as who is not getting treated for their hypertension, who is not getting appropriate basic health interventions on an ongoing basis.

    But a huge percentage of America has no consistent health care, doesn't have a doctor by name. A situation, a crisis of this scale hits, they have nowhere to turn, that we have a patchwork mosaic of public health systems, a patchwork mosaic of guidances and government responses.

    You cross a county line, and it is a whole different ball game. This is not the way to stop a national epidemic. This is chaos.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, no question a lot of us are so much more fortunate than many, many other Americans.

    Laurie Garrett, thank you so much for putting it in perspective, science journalist and writer Laurie Garrett.

    Thank you.

  • Laurie Garrett:

    Thank you, Judy.

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