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What this global health expert sees in states where COVID-19 is surging

As Americans attempt to return to pre-pandemic habits and activities, COVID-19 continues to spread. More than 20 states have seen a jump in coronavirus cases in the past couple of weeks, and hospitalizations have increased significantly in at least eight. Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how states can balance the risks of reopening.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Alabama is hardly the only state that has seen a spike in cases recently.

    More than 20 states also have had a jump in the past couple of weeks, many in the South and the West.

    Hospitalizations are also up significantly in at least eight states.

    Let's look at this and questions about how to get the right balance while dealing with huge economic problems.

    Dr. Ashish Jha is director of Harvard University's Global Health Institute, and he joins us from Cambridge.

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

    As you look at this spike in cases in some places around the country, what does this tell you?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so thanks for having me back, Judy.

    I am worried. I look across the country. I see about 20 states, as you said, where cases are rising. And it probably reflects what happened about three, four weeks ago, as our country started opening up around Memorial Day, some states even before then.

    What we're seeing now is cases rising. And the biggest question in front of me is, what's going to slow that down? Because I think there's no appetite for shutting those states back down again. The other tool that helps, testing, tracing and isolation, we don't have that built up the way we need it.

    And so I'm really worried about what the next few weeks and months are going to look like.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you — I heard you say it probably is connected to reopening. Is it definitely connected? I mean, is there proof of a connection?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Well, you know, proof is hard. And we have seen so much variation across states.

    I mean, some states, for instance, Georgia, I was very worried when it opened up and thought it was opening up too early. We have not seen a spike there. So, part of it is local circumstance. Part of it is that opening up means different things in different states.

    But I do think — I mean, you know, all the evidence suggests that it is linked to opening up. I just don't know if we have definitive proof of that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you mentioned testing, because you do hear the argument from some quarters that now there's more testing available. This may account for the higher number of infections that are recorded.

  • Ashish Jha:

    So, I think testing is a small part of the increase. I don't think it's the whole story.

    I actually think that, while testing is better than what it was, it's still far from where it needs to be. And, obviously, testing is not going to explain the increases in hospitalizations that we're seeing. Those are really just from the infections and people getting sick from the infections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we hear what you are saying about you're worried and you don't see what is going to slow this down going forward.

    At the same time, you have this passionate argument on the part of people like Governor Ivey of Alabama, who has said, livelihoods matter, too, we have to get people back to work, back earning income.

    How do you strike the right balance?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so, I am very sympathetic to that argument that livelihoods matter. Of course they do.

    We know there's a huge health and psychological cost of the economic shutdown. The point here is, as cases go up and as cages rage across Alabama and across other states, I think that's going to have a direct negative economic impact on that state.

    I think it's going to be hard for the economy to fully open up. What I have always argued for is that we needed to bring the virus levels down, we need to build in a testing infrastructure, and then open up more safely, so that we could have an economy and save lives.

    We're sort of managing to do neither.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so do you see a way to signal to the leaders in these states, who seem to have made up their minds that they're going forward, to put the brakes on this, to some extent?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so what I have been saying to states is, if you're starting to see these kinds of increases, you have to put in some amount of social distancing.

    I understand you may not want to do a full lockdown, but you have got to really think about what you can roll back. You have got to ramp up testing and tracing. You have got to go everything you can to slow down the spread of this virus, because, once it gets out of control, then you will have very few choices, and you will really be forced to shut down.

    And that would not be a great outcome for anybody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Jha, I also want to ask about asymptomatic transmission of COVID.

    As you know, World Health Organization put out a statement a day or so ago saying there was less evidence of transmission of infection by people without symptoms, but then they turned around and corrected that.

    What — tell us the accurate — what is accurately understood to be the case for people who don't have symptoms, but who do have COVID?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, based on all the evidence we have right now, there is no doubt in my mind that people without symptoms do transmit the disease, they can, and they're actually a pretty major source of infection.

    So I think that was a misstatement by WHO. It was very unfortunate. They have walked it back. Asymptomatic spread is a real part of what makes controlling this disease so hard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Dr. Jha, I want to ask you about this, because this is questions being raised in a number of quarters.

    Your institute, other places forecast a much higher need for beds than has turned out to be the case in a number of states, and a higher infection rate we have heard predicted. Was there too grim a scenario that was forecast, do you think, by many in the public health community?

  • Ashish Jha:

    You know, what we did was, we looked at the best data we had at that time from China and Italy, and we saw the spread in the U.S.

    And I think everybody laid out what were potential scenarios. It's one of those situations where, then I think we acted very aggressively. Certainly, in March and April, much of the country was shut down, and we were able to curtail this.

    And so I don't know — I don't think — I personally don't think we overreacted. I still feel like we did the right thing in shutting down the country. The newest evidence is that, if we hadn't done that, we would have had 60 million more infections, probably a half-a-million more deaths. So we prevented that.

    Did the policy, was it perfectly tuned to every single region of the country? It probably wasn't. But I think, overall, the response so far on that front has been right.

    We just haven't done the other stuff we need, like the testing and tracing infrastructure, that would allow us to open up safely again. We have talked about this before, Judy. That has been, continues to be, I think, an Achilles' heel of this response in the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Ashish Jha joining us once again, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Ashish Jha:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

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