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Public health expert says ‘zero doubt’ most U.S. virus deaths were avoidable

The U.S. recorded more than 1,400 coronavirus deaths Wednesday. Hospitalizations are up significantly, and at least five states reported single-day death records this week. With the national death toll from the pandemic now over 150,000, many public health experts say we need to change our approach. Brown University’s Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number of new COVID infections may be slowing a bit, but the virus is taking an enormous toll. More than 1,400 coronavirus-related deaths were reported just yesterday. Hospitalizations are up significantly, and at least five states reported single-day records of deaths this week.

    All of this coming as the U.S. has now passed 150,000 deaths. Many doctors and public health voices say it's time to change our approach.

    William Brangham has that conversation.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, in response to this growing death toll across the country, more than 1,000 health professionals have signed a letter saying that, if we don't change course and do so quickly, those deaths will only continue.

    The letter is titled "Shut It Down, Start Over, Do It Right." It recommends targeted closures in certain hot spots, far more testing, better contact tracing, and the need for unified, coherent communication.

    Citing the successful efforts of other countries, it says: "We could have prevented 99 percent of America's COVID-19 deaths. But we didn't."

    One of those signatories joins me now.

    Dr. Megan Ranney is an emergency physician, a researcher and director of the Brown Center for Digital Health at Brown University.

    Dr. Ranney, very, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Can you explain to me why you wanted to sign this letter? What's the argument, the core argument you're making?

  • Megan Ranney:

    So, the reason why we wrote this letter and why I agreed to sign on to it is because we continue to lack a coherent national strategy to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

    We're seeing a rising number of hot spots across the country, including in states that had managed to decrease the number of people who were infected. And it is becoming clearer and clearer that, without a national plan, we are not going to get this virus under control.

  • William Brangham:

    So, I ticked off a few of the things that you and your signatories suggest we ought to do.

    Can you expand on that a bit more? What's the order of business that we ought to be doing?

  • Megan Ranney:

    Absolutely.

    So, the first and simplest thing is that we all need to be wearing masks all the time. I'm not wearing one with you right now, because I am in my office that is closed, and there is virtually no one else in my office building.

    Outside of this, I wear masks whenever I'm around someone who's not part of my immediate family. And that's what we should all be doing. We need mandates to make that happen. We need it to be easy for people to wear masks.

    The second thing that we need is, we need a coherent national testing strategy. We have been talking for months about the need for tests. And the reason why is showing up now. For anyone who's tried to get a COVID-19 test in the last couple of weeks, you know that the delay in test results is growing and growing, making the point of getting that test almost pointless, right?

    The third thing that we need is a national strategy for preventive personal protective equipment, things like gloves, masks, gowns. If we don't have adequate masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, we're never going to be able to keep us all safe.

    And until we can do those things, it's on us to keep people apart. We have to do things like make going to a bar more difficult. We have to do things like making sure that we protect the key parts of our economy, our schools and our essential businesses, before we open up places where people are likely to transmit COVID-19.

    So, those are a few of the things that we're calling for.

  • William Brangham:

    I mentioned that your letter states that, had we done a lot of these things that you are calling for, that we could have prevented 99 percent of the COVID-19 deaths.

    Do you really believe that's true? I mean, we have seen other parts of the U.S., like California that did many of the things that you're talking about, and they, too, are really struggling. Do you really think we could have stemmed the deaths that much?

  • Megan Ranney:

    So, I can talk from my own experience in Rhode Island.

    We put many of those measures in place here, and we relatively quickly plateaued that number of cases, and then saw a dramatic decline. And for the past couple of months, we have kept our number of new infections and our number of hospitalizations at a very, very low level.

    We did reopen in early July, and our number of cases is starting to go up. So, our governor just yesterday said she's going to decrease the number of people that can be in a single place at any time.

    By doing this, we are decreasing the deaths in our state, compared to other similar states. And when you look at California, when they had those measures in place, they had fewer infections and deaths. So, is it 99 percent? Is it 90 percent? That's a question of modeling.

    But there's zero doubt that we could have a dramatic decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths were we following this strategy from the get-go.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, obviously, we have seen the economic devastation of the prior shutdown. We have seen this incredible resistance to staying closed for one day more. There's a huge push to open schools.

    What makes you confident that the argument that you're making, through this letter and your appearances here, are going to change people's minds? I mean, the tide seems to be pushing so much in the other direction.

  • Megan Ranney:

    So, the goal is to reopen the economy and to get kids back to school. And that's precisely why these measures are needed.

    I'm the mom of two school-aged kids. I really want my kids to go to school physically in the fall. I'm also a professor here at Brown. I really want the students to come back. And we're planning on that. But that is not going to be possible if we don't have these public health measures in place.

    Similarly, I think about all of my friends and colleagues' businesses. Those are going to go under if people are getting infected by COVID, and are scared to go out and spend money. In order to save our economy, in order to save our kids and their schools, we have to have these strategies in place.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Megan Ranney of Brown University, thank you very, very much for your time.

  • Megan Ranney:

    Thank you.

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