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‘We have a pandemic out of control,’ public health expert says

While the U.S. is focused on the pending outcome of the presidential election, the pandemic is not on hold. The country has now crossed another unwelcome threshold: more than 100,000 new coronavirus cases recorded in a single day. Sixteen states have reached high for hospitalizations related to COVID-19. Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University School of Medicine joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While election votes are still being counted and legal battles are playing out, the pandemic is not on hold.

    The toll is climbing, and we have crossed another unwelcome threshold, more than 100,000 cases in the U.S. in a single day. Each of nearly two dozen states recorded more cases in the past week than in any prior week-long span. And 16 states reached highs for COVID-related hospitalizations.

    More than 234,000 people in the U.S. have died.

    Doctor Carlos del Rio is a professor of infectious diseases and global health at the Emory University School of Medicine. And he joins me now.

    Dr. del Rio, thank you very much for being here.

    What do these record-high numbers telling us about what is going on?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    I think they tell us that we have a pandemic out of control right now in our country.

    And it is spreading both in urban and rural settings, and it is spreading across young and old populations. So, we really have basically a forest fire that we're not controlling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does it say that hasn't been done that should have been done?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Well, there's a lot of things that could have been done. And it is always difficult to play Monday-morning quarterback.

    But there is still opportunity to do something. There are several things. Number one, we never had a national strategy. We have had — each state has had their own strategy. And, as a result of that, it is really hard to fight a pandemic with 50 different plans.

    Number two, we have never had a coordinated approach in looking what we are going to do. So, for example, having a mask mandate across the country, yes, would be difficult, but not impossible. And it's something that could certainly be coordinated.

    As you're having more or less cases in a community, you can decide what exactly, what interventions you need to do.

    Our testing system has not worked well. You still have people — despite having a lot of tests, we still have people that cannot get test results within 24 hours and are waiting four to five days. And, again, if you wait for a test result for that long, a lot more infections are happening.

    And our contact tracing is totally broken down. We have not done contact tracing appropriately. And then, finally, I would say that we really are focusing too much on not doing things that need to be done. We're just saying, let's open the community and let's let the virus run, when some things need to be done, for example, avoiding crowded places, avoiding indoor settings, certain things that could be done to prevent the widespread events that we know are important and the super-spreading events in this pandemic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, where does the responsibility, where does the blame lie here?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Well I think, at the end of the day, the blame has to lie on the administration.

    I think one of the big mistakes the administration did is, I don't think they ever took this seriously enough. They started well by having the task force. But then they rapidly inactivated the CDC. The CDC has been absent throughout this pandemic.

    And I think not having the CDC play a critical role in this pandemic is really one of the missed opportunities and one of the most dreadful mistakes we have had. They politicized CDC. And that, of course, has had tremendous consequences, because CDC has not been able to make public health recommendations.

    They have been able to do recommendations that have been sort of doctored to fit the needs of the administration.

    And then, finally, the administration really has — instead of taking a central role, for example, advocating the — an act to start having a mass production of PPE, they sort of have left it up to the states and have set the states need to fight it among themselves about getting testing, getting PPE.

    And that has been not well-coordinated, and that has had consequences as a result of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about what should be done next.

    But, before I do that, I mean, I have to point out that it's not just the United States that is seeing a surge in COVID again. It's happening across Europe. So, this is taking place in other parts of the world.

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Absolutely.

    And I have talked to colleagues in Europe. And the colleagues in Europe recognize the mistakes they made. They made the mistakes that I think we are all making, which is, number one, people are tired of the pandemic, right?

    There's COVID fatigue. So, when we locked down initially to prevent cases from going up, people thought that that would be enough to control the virus, but they didn't realize that the moment you let go of restrictions, if you don't put in place masking and social distancing and other non-pharmacological measures, the virus is going to come back and it's going to spread very rapidly.

    Europeans saw this very quickly. People started going out, started gathering, going to bars, going to restaurants. Young people started traveling and going to places. And without the restrictions of — without the pharmacological measures of masking and social distancing, then immediately there was spread of the virus.

    And by the time you have a wide spread of the virus, it's really hard to control. So they made the same mistakes that we're making, and without — again, Europe is much like the United States. It's not one bloc, but it's multiple countries doing different things that have not been really well-coordinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you described a number of things that should have been done differently at the national level, at the federal level.

    What about — we're heading into the Thanksgiving holidays in just a few weeks. What is your advice on a personal level to Americans, given where we are in this pandemic?

  • Carlos del Rio:

    I think it's very hard to tell people, don't get together for the holidays.

    But I would recommend that you get together in smaller groups. I would try to keep that under 10 individuals. I would tell people to, if your — the group that you're going to get together with, have a discussion with them and say, let's all quarantine ourselves, avoid contact with others, for the next two weeks before the — before we get together.

    Let's get tested before we get together. Let's get retested as soon as we arrive to our destination. I mean, there's things we can do, wear masks, try to — if the weather is good enough, try to do it outside, instead of inside.

    So there's things you can do to actually prevent a spreading event. But I would certainly not recommend — I tend to — frequently, my family and I will get together and have 20, 25 people on Thanksgiving. I don't think that's a good idea.

    And, again, I would really think we need to have a very good discussion about, what's the safe thing? And I would avoid having people that are high-risk. If you have an elderly relative, it's probably not a good time for them to be at Thanksgiving with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Carlos del Rio at Emory University, we thank you very much.

  • Carlos del Rio:

    Delighted to be with you.

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