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The CDC is warning of an ‘impending doom’ of COVID surges, deaths. Is it warranted?

President Joe Biden urged state and local officials Monday to keep or reinstate mask mandates amid some of the most urgent warnings yet about new COVID-19 surges. Judy Woodruff talks to Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, about the latest developments in the fight against the virus, which has killed almost 550,000 Americans.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president urged state and local officials today to keep or reinstate mask mandates, as he and his team delivered some of the most urgent warnings yet about new COVID surges.

    The sobering messages came as the country is approaching a death toll of 550,000 people.

    President Biden again accelerated efforts to increase mass vaccinations, and he portrayed the efforts as a race against the virus.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    By April 19, three weeks from today, 90 percent of adults, people 18 and older, will be eligible to get vaccinated; 90 percent of all Americans will be living within five miles of a place they can get a shot.

    And, of course, it'll take time for everyone to get their appointment. It's a big country. And as fast as we're going, we still have a long way to go to finish this vaccination effort.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Biden's remarks came as the CDC reported the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are highly effective at preventing COVID in real-life conditions. A new study found the vaccines were 90 percent effective two weeks after a second shot was given.

    But cases are rising right now. The U.S. is seeing more than 60,000 a day, on average, over the last week.

    That led to an impassioned plea from CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    I'm going to lose the script, and I'm going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.

    We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But, right now, I'm scared. I so badly want to be done. I know you all so badly want to be done. We are just almost there, but not quite yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to spend some time now looking at these warnings, at the risks, and the moves to open more widely around the country.

    Dr. Leana Wen is an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She's a former public health commissioner for Baltimore. Her latest book about her work in this field is called "Lifelines."

    Dr. Leana Wen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    We hear Dr. Rochelle Walensky at the CDC speak of impending doom. these are some of the most sobering words we have heard from the administration in weeks. Are they warranted?

  • Dr. Leana Wen:

    Well, Judy, we are seeing that the number of cases are now increasing.

    First, there was a plateau, and now they're increasing, with specific hot spots across the country. We have seen this playbook before. We know what happens next, which is that we will also see a rise in hospitalizations, and, unfortunately, a rise in deaths after that.

    Now, the good news, of course, is that we're getting vaccines out at record speeds, 2.5 million vaccinations being done a day, which is credit to the Biden team for ramping up vaccinations in this way and ensuring supply.

    But that is what makes everything even more tragic, that we're not so far from the finish line. We just have to hang in there a bit longer. And I think, at this point, we need to switch to a strategy in this country of harm reduction, recognizing that we can't tell people to just stay inside and not do anything. We're not trying to get to zero risk.

    But I want to urge people to get vaccinated when it is your turn, to really keep your risk to a minimum until then and then, after that, know you are very well-protected, but still keep on wearing a mask while in public.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what is it, Dr. Wen that people — I hear you saying wear a mask, get vaccinated. But what is happening around the country that is causing this rise?

  • Leana Wen:

    It is often framed as, we're now in this race of vaccines vs. variants. And to some extent, that is true, because we do have more transmissible variants. And when we have something that is more transmissible, it means that the activities that we once thought were pretty safe are now going to be higher risk, because something spreads more easily.

    There is a third factor, though, here as well, and that's human behavior. We are seeing restrictions being lifted all over the country. In many states, everything can be operating at 100 percent capacity. And I actually understand the reason to do that. We want our businesses to come back.

    But I don't understand the lifting of mask mandates, because, for the time being, we need to understand masks and vaccines as the ticket back to pre-pandemic normal. That's our ticket out of this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you can — one can understand why people, in a way, feel they're getting mixed messages. They're being told, we're almost there, vaccines are going to be widely available, even more so than they are now, and yet we can't let our guard down.

    It is a concept, I think, for many people, it is tough to understand.

  • Leana Wen:


    And I actually think there is a way to simplify this. And I hope that the CDC will come out with even better guidelines about what it is that fully vaccinated people can do. I think that's what will help people to distinguish the kinds of behaviors that they can do.

    If we can say to people, for example, please hold off on traveling until you're fully vaccinated, and then, two weeks after you receive both doses of Pfizer or Moderna or two weeks after you receive your single-dose Johnson & Johnson, you can travel at that time, you can see your family at that time, I think that is something that is a lot more understandable.

    And now, especially as we're getting more evidence about how these vaccines don't just protect you from getting ill, it also protects you from spreading the virus to others, I think there can be much better guidance so that we, as clinicians, can give our patients clear, practical advice about what kinds of activities they can do.

    I think this pandemic, as you said, has really been so challenging, and people just want to get back to normal. Let's help them to do so in a way that takes into account their risks, and also their values of what's most important to them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will see whether the CDC does as you suggest and comes out with some of these specific guidelines.

    I do want to ask you, Dr. Wen, about something else. And that is, in a report on CNN yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx, who was one of the team of people in the Trump administration at the White House who were coordinating the response to this pandemic, she said in an interview that, in the initial surge, they understood 100,000 or so Americans would die.

    But after that, she clearly suggested that steps could have been taken to mitigate the number of deaths, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of deaths.

    How does that come across to you? Is it — how should the American people accept that?

  • Leana Wen:

    It's a gut punch. I mean, it is really difficult to hear that, especially for all those individuals who have lost loved ones.

    To hear that there were hundreds of thousands of deaths that were preventable, that this didn't have to happen, is really hard to hear. I think, unfortunately, she is right. I think that first wave of COVID-19 deaths may have been hard to prevent because it was like a freight train coming at us 100 miles per hour. It was already on top of us before we knew.

    But then, after that, we knew what to do. We knew about masking. We knew about the importance of testing. We knew about why we shouldn't be politicizing something as basic as masks or quarantining, why we needed to then also bolster our public health capacity, and not open up too soon. We knew about all of this.

    But to see that it happened anyway, and that there was that disconnect between public health and the political messaging, that's really disheartening, and I think so tragic, because we know the consequence.

    And so I watched that, and I just think that it's — there's a lot of reckoning that the United States has to do once we're through this about how to prevent the next pandemic and really all these lives that were lost.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of reckoning, for sure.

    Dr. Leana Wen, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

  • Leana Wen:

    Thank you.

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