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Pandemic is ‘direct threat to our homeland security,’ says infectious disease expert

The U.S. has now recorded more than 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 160,000 deaths -- over 22 percent of the worldwide totals. Many American public health experts warn that the U.S. is at another important crossroads in its response to the pandemic. Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his recommendations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, with more than 5 million COVID cases and over 160,000 deaths in this country, many public health voices are contending that the U.S. is essentially at another crossroads when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. This country currently accounts for more than 22 percent of all cases and deaths worldwide.

    We want to explore some of these concerns with Dr. Peter Hotez. He's an infectious disease specialist and a pediatrician. He's at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

    Dr. Hotez, thank you very much for joining us again.

    So, when we compare the U.S. with the rest of the world, is it as bad as it sounds?

  • Peter Hotez:

    Unfortunately, it is, Judy.

    You pointed out 22 percent, 25 percent of the cases, and a significant number of the deaths, so 160,000 deaths so far, and out of the 700,000, the 750,000 deaths globally. So we are, sadly, at the epicenter of the epidemic.

    And despite all of the suffering Americans have gone through in 2020, there is still no end in sight. The projections are, we're going to get up to 230,000 deaths by October, 300,000 deaths by December 1. That's from the Institute for Health Metrics. And it continues to rise from there, and not only just the deaths, but the permanent, long-lasting injuries, neurologic injuries, lung injuries in the survivors, vascular injury, heart injury.

    So, this just is an awful, awful disease, and it has taken a huge toll on the American life and economy, and now with the homeland security, tragically.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Awful disease, as you say. And so hard to understand, when this country is one of — certainly one of the wealthiest in the world.

    Dr. Hotez, you told us today that you think it's time for a national reset. What did you mean by that?

  • Peter Hotez:

    Well, the strategy has been, on the U.S. side, if you call it a strategy, to always have the states out in front, let the states make their own decisions, and the federal government would provide some important support, FEMA support, manufacturing support to provide ventilators and PPE and so forth.

    And it's a failed strategy. It's failed because we are the epicenter, and we continue to be. We have now — in the last seven days, we still lead the world in number of new cases and deaths.

    And my proposal — and others have made similar ones — is that we need — not only need a reset, but we need the federal government in the lead. We need — not only in the back, but actually providing the directives to the states.

    And that reset has different aspects, depending on the state. So, for instance, in New Hampshire and Maine, they're doing quite well, and there may not be much to do at all. But here in Texas and in Florida and Georgia, where things are dire, we may need more much more aggressive measures, in some parts, even a lockdown.

    And if we can get to that containment level — and there are different definitions, one new case per 100,000 residents per day, per…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Peter Hotez:

    … others one per million — what that means, we can then safely open schools throughout the country. We can safely open up colleges, maybe even have sporting events, and have something that resembles normal American life.

    But we cannot have that now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when you say lockdown in some places, are you saying in some states, what, half the states? I mean, what does this mean, in practical terms?

  • Peter Hotez:

    In practical terms, certainly, for instance, if you look at a state like Florida, where the epidemic is raging in North Florida, in Miami, there's clearly going to need to be more aggressive measures, possibly a mandatory stay-at-home, maybe not the entire state.

    Same in Texas, where you have very aggressive acceleration in some of the metro areas in South Texas. The point is, you can be a little more surgical than just simply saying, we have got to stop all of the — just lock down the entire nation.

    There are pieces that will be — have to lock down, however.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, right now, we don't see moves in that direction. The federal government — we know the president feels strongly, this is something, it's up to the states.

    How do you see the wheels being set in motion for this to — for this to happen?

  • Peter Hotez:

    Yes.

    So, you ask the hardest question of all. I have put out a plan, but how do you get movement out of the White House to really take this on? And we're trying to — I'm trying every lever I can, through the White House, and other colleagues are doing the same.

    And, unfortunately, we have people who then say, well, Peter, Dr. Hotez, I hear your October plan, but we don't need that. I have my November 3 plan. And I say, well, there is no November 3 plan.

    There's a January 20, 2021, plan, which is really more like a February 20 plan. And, by then, we could have up to 400,000 Americans perish. So it's not an option. We have to find a way to do this now.

    Otherwise, we have already seen what's happened in Georgia when we try to open up schools in areas of high transmission. It will fail. It failed miserably. And it will fail in Florida and it will fail in Texas.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what do you say, Dr. Hotez, to those people who say, we understand it's serious, we understand it doesn't look good, but, if we don't get businesses open, if we don't get schools open, this country can't function, that some people are not going to be able to thrive if they can't get their livelihood going?

  • Peter Hotez:

    Yes.

    No, and I understand that, especially for the essential workers, who physically have to be in the workplace, and family-owned businesses, and working on construction sites. But in the areas where transmission is still aggressive, we already know we can't open schools. We already know we are not having anything that resembles a normal life anyway.

    At least, if we can do that reset now, by October 1, we can have a — I wouldn't say it's entirely — would be entirely normal, but something that resembles that, like they're doing all over the world, like they're doing in Canada and Europe and so many other places.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, if we don't, if this isn't done, what are the consequences?

  • Peter Hotez:

    If we — we have got the models. And the models are dire. The models say the deaths will continue to climb.

    We will — the long-lasting injuries will continue. Teachers will be terrified, and appropriately so, about going back to work. And it will not only cause further erosion to the economy, but we will reach a point where people feel scared about going outside.

    And that's when homeland security is threatened. So, this has to be recognized as a direct threat to our homeland security. And, right now, unfortunately, the way the White House is conducting its business, it's guaranteeing that our homeland security will be threatened.

    And we don't have to live this way. We can do something about this now and make life much better for all Americans at this point.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    An utterly sobering message, Dr. Peter Hotez from the Baylor College of Medicine.

    Thank you, Dr. Hotez.

  • Peter Hotez:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

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