Surges in new Covid-19 infections have paused or rolled back reopening plans in at least 19 states as the nation's top infectious disease doctor offered a bleak warning: Americans need to take sensible measures to curb the spread or risk seeing 100,000 new cases a day.
"We are now having 40,000 cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around," Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing.
Turning it around will take a coordinated, collaborative effort, he said at the hearing, not the "disparate responses" the nation has shown so far.
But without strong national leadership, that coordination may be up to mayors and governors, according to Dr. William Haseltine, a former biotechnology executive and professor at Harvard's medical and public health schools.
"This situation is now so grim and is getting worse by the day," he said. "From now on, they know it's in their backyard and their job to take care of it if no one else does."
Most of the US has the pandemic in their backyard, with only two states showing a downward trend in cases from last week. The surge comes as restriction-fatigued Americans increasingly gather in large groups for summer recreation.
Precautions like social distancing and mask wearing are meant to help people "enjoy themselves within the safe guidelines," Fauci said.
"We should not look at the public health endeavors as being an obstruction to opening up. We should look at it as a vehicle to opening up," he said.
Turning the tide means more masks and fewer bars
The measures health experts tout to curb the virus are especially important considering more than 90% of the country has not experienced the virus, meaning herd immunity could still be years away, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the Senate HELP committee on Tuesday.
Both Redfield and Fauci stressed the importance of widespread masks, which experts have encouraged for months even as President Donald Trump has noticeably forgone them.
An environment with universal masks is "fundamentally the most important thing we can do," Redfield said.
What people shouldn't do in this pandemic, Fauci said Tuesday, is head to the bar.
"Bars: really not good, really not good. Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really have got to stop that," Fauci said Tuesday.
Without those measures, Fauci said, the US will continue to be in trouble.
"Clearly, we are not in total control right now," he said. "The numbers speak for themselves."
In Florida and other Sunbelt states, hospitals are rushing to line up more hospital beds as they head into the height of the summer season amid a startling surge in confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
Over the past few days, states such as Florida, Arizona, Texas and California have reversed course, closing or otherwise clamping down on bars, shutting beaches, rolling back restaurant capacity, putting limits on crowds at pools, or taking other steps to curb a scourge that may be thriving because of such factors as air conditioning and resistance to wearing masks.
“Any time you have these reopenings, you’re depending on people to do the right things, to follow the rules. I think that’s where the weak spots come in,” said Dr. Cindy Prins, a University of Florida epidemiologist. She warned that things are likely to get worse before they get better.
Hospitals in the new hot spots are already stretched nearly to the limit and are scrambling to add intensive care unit beds for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.
Newly confirmed cases in Florida have spiked over the past week, especially in younger people, who may be more likely to survive the virus but can spread it to the Sunshine State's many vulnerable older residents.
The state reported more than 6,000 new confirmed cases Tuesday. More than 8,000 were recorded on each of three days late last week. Deaths have climbed past 3,500. Floridians ages 15 to 34 now make up 31% of all cases, up from 25% in early June. Last week, more than 8,000 new confirmed cases were reported in that age group, compared with about 2,000 among people 55 to 64 years old.
Hospital ICUs are starting to fill up in South Florida, with a steadily increasing number of patients requiring ventilators. Miami’s Baptist Hospital had only six of its 82 ICU beds available, officials said.