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Why a temporary halt on reopening is ‘wholly inadequate’ to contain virus

The surge of new coronavirus infections is spreading wider and faster across the country, with 29 states reporting notable increases in cases. The head of the CDC also said it’s believed that at least 23 million Americans have been infected, which is 10 times higher than the number of confirmed cases. Amna Nawaz talks to Dr. Ashish Jha about how state officials can get control of their outbreaks.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The surge of new coronavirus infections is spreading wider and faster throughout the country; 29 states are reporting notable increases, many of those in the Sunbelt and the West.

    The head of the CDC also said today that it's believed that at least 23 million Americans have been infected. That's 10 times higher the number of cases that have been reported. And the CDC also added pregnant women to the list of high-risk groups.

    Amna Nawaz gets a breakdown on these trends and the concerns over the pace of reopening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced today he would pause reopening and free up more hospital beds as the state is struggling to contain outbreaks.

    In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis urged older residents to stay at home and young residents to avoid crowds. But these governors and others have resisted new restrictions until now. And a number of states are seeing record numbers of cases over the past week.

    To help us understand more about all of this, we're joined again by Dr. Ashish Jha, professor and director of Harvard University's Global Health Institute.

    Dr. Jha, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    And let's start with the numbers we're seeing, the surge in infections in a number of states. They have increased testing, many of these states. But what about reopening? What role did reopening play in contributing to those new numbers?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so thank you for having me on.

    I think there's really little doubt that, in many states across the country, we reopened too early. The evidence did not suggest that they were safe to reopen, and then they opened up too aggressively.

    And what we're seeing now is the surge in cases that, unfortunately, many of us worried about, and they're happening in large parts of the country, and it's really quite worrisome. And I think we have to act boldly to try to get this under control

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One of the questions people have, though, is that a number of states have been moving to reopen. We're seeing these huge surges in some states, like Texas and Arizona and Florida, but we're not seeing them in other states that have also moved to reopen.

    So how do you reconcile that?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes.

    So, it's true that it's not happening everywhere in the country. Different states have taken different tactics in terms of how aggressively they have opened. Different states have taken different approaches in terms of how much — how many cases they had when they reopened.

    And then there's always a little bit of idiosyncrasy to all of this. None of this is perfectly predictable.

    But, that said, in my mind, there's no question about it that we're seeing large increases in infections largely because we have opened up too quickly and too much.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you, too, about the role of masks, because there has been a lot of conversations around this.

    And I want to share with you some analysis from state data that looks at the last two weeks in the states that recommend, but don't require mask wearing. That was 16 states. New cases in the last two weeks went up 84 percent.

    And in other states — that's 11 states total — that mandated mask wearing in public, new cases fell 25 percent.

    So, Dr. Jha, those numbers are strike, but we know there's a difference between causation and correlation. What can we say we know definitively about masks and their ability to stop the spread of the virus?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes. So, this is an area where the evidence has shifted substantially over the last two months.

    And the study that you point to is only one data point, and if that was the only one we had, I would say, well, that may not be as definitive, but as part of what are now dozens of studies that are coming out, I think we feel very confident that masks are a really important part of getting this virus under control.

    Unto itself, it is not enough, but as a part of a broader strategy, I think it's pretty critical that we get into mandatory mask wearing whenever people are out and about.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are a lot of questions, though. People have concerns. You're seeing a number of theories circulating on social media too that wearing a mask can actually be bad for your health.

    I have seen some of these, where people say you can breathe back in the carbon dioxide you're breathing out, and that can be bad for your health. I have seen other theories where people say it can actually increase your chance of getting the virus if you wear a mask.

    What do you say to people who are reading those and are concerned?

  • Ashish Jha:

    So, I understand the reason for concerns, but I think the evidence on this is pretty clear. Wearing a mask is not harmful.

    It's worth remembering doctors and nurses often wear masks for 12, 14, 16 hours a day. We haven't seen them get sick from wearing a mask. Other workers wear masks for long periods of time.

    Really, the concerns about breathing back in carbon dioxide or other things are not rooted in medical science. And I understand it's a little bit inconvenient to be wearing a mask, but it's perfectly safe to be wearing a mask.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me bring you back to where we started the conversation, with the news that the Texas governor says they're now going to pause reopening.

    At this stage, when they are amidst a huge surge in numbers, what kind of impact is a pause like that going to have? Is that enough to slow the spread?

  • Ashish Jha:

    So, I welcome the Texas governor recognizing that there is a problem, but this response is wholly inadequate for the size of the problem they have.

    By the time your hospitals are starting to get full, you have got two weeks of rising infections already baked in. Over the next two weeks, I expect the number of cases in Texas to continue climbing. And just putting a pause is not enough.

    They have to really think hard about mandated mask wearing. I think you have to pull back on large public gatherings. I really wonder whether it's safe to have indoor restaurants. There's a lot that the governor has to do to bring this virus under control. A pause is not enough.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Jha, we can't remind people enough that hundreds of Americans are still dying every day.

    When you look at the states where they are seeing these surges and increases, what states — what steps, rather, could those governors take today that would help to slow the spread and prevent some of those deaths?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so the single biggest thing that I think governors have to do is recognize how serious of a problem this is.

    And I still don't see that sense of urgency. We have to get ahead of this virus. And that means mandatory mask wearing. It means absolutely canceling any large indoor gatherings, including really rethinking things like restaurants, bars, nightclubs.

    And then we have got to keep working on ramping up testing and tracing. Even this week, we heard from the president that the problem is, we're testing too much.

    No, the problem is, we're not testing enough. And we're not isolating cases once we find them. And so, until we do those things, we're not going to be able to bring these large outbreaks under control.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard's Global Health Institute.

    Thanks very much for joining us.

  • Ashish Jha:

    Thank you.

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