The United States is seeing the fastest spread yet of the coronavirus, the White House Coronavirus Task Force said in its first public briefing in four months on Thursday.
Yet, task force members spoke out against the idea of nationwide lockdowns or school closures and held out hope that a vaccine will soon be available to help protect Americans.
Dr. Deborah Birx, once a senior member of the task force, said she’s been traveling the country trying to encourage governors and other state and local leaders to enact measures that will stop the spread of the virus.
She’s had mixed results at best.
She showed a series of graphs showing the current increase in cases is sharper and steeper than at any other time during the pandemic.
“This is more cases, more rapidly than what we had seen before,” Birx said. “You can see the increase in test positivity to around 10%,” she added. That’s the number of people tested who get a positive diagnosis.
Birx displayed a map awash in red, showing the number of daily hospitalizations, which now regularly tops 70,000.
The US hit a new record for daily reported diagnoses on Thursday, with 182,601 new cases reported by 9 p.m., according to Johns Hopkins University.
“We do know what to do and we are asking every American to do those things today,” she added. That starts with wearing masks, but also staying apart and limiting gatherings, she said.
The virus spreads even when people do not show symptoms, Birx noted. “It is because of this asymptomatic spread that we are asking people to wear a mask indoors,” she said. Birx also said “decreasing those friend and family gatherings where people come together and unknowingly spread the virus,” will help slow the spread.
Earlier Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving.
But other members of the task force said they would not support a nationwide lockdown.
“President Trump wanted me to make it clear that our task force, this administration and our President, does not support another national lockdown. And we do not support closing schools,” Vice President Mike Pence said at the briefing.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield agreed and said, without citing the research, that studies have shown the virus does not spread in schools.
“Today there’s extensive data we have gathered over the last two to three months to confirm that K through 12 schools can operate with face-to-face learning and they can do it safely,” Redfield said.
Several CDC spokespeople said they could not immediately identify what data Redfield was talking about.
“The infections that we’ve identified in schools when they’ve been evaluated, were not acquired in schools. They were actually acquired in the community and in the household,” Redfield said.
Casual get-togethers and silent transmission of the virus by people who don’t even know they are infected are a large part of the problem, Redfield said.
“It’s small family gatherings, where people become more comfortable, they remove their face masks, and they get together. It’s a silent epidemic,” he said.
“For kids, one of the safest places they can be is to remain in school. It’s really important that following the data, making sure we don’t make emotional decisions about what to close and what not to close, and I’m here to say clearly the data strongly supports that K through 12 schools and institutes of higher learning really are not where we are having our challenges,” Redfield added.
The big hope, the task force members agreed, is a vaccine.
Coronavirus vaccines under development by Moderna and Pfizer have shown 95% efficacy in preventing symptomatic infections and Pfizer is expected to file for Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization Friday.
“That is extraordinary,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said at the briefing. “That is almost to the level of what we see with measles (vaccine), which is 98% effective.”
If they are approved, the task force members said the vaccines will be rolled out quickly.
“We are telling you that help is on the way,” Fauci said.
But he said that means people must now increase their use of masks, avoiding gatherings and keeping their distance from others.
“If you are fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting until the cavalry gets here,” Fauci said.
“It means that we need to actually double down on the public health measures as we are waiting for that help to come, which will be soon,” said Fauci. “If we do that, we’ll be able to hold things off until the vaccine comes.”