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Dr. Fauci Discusses Recent COVID-19 Spikes In Several States

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The next couple of weeks are going to be critical in dealing with the coronavirus surge in the U.S. That was the message from the country's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who went before Congress yesterday. His warning comes at a time when cases are climbing rapidly in several states. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is on the line with us now. Dr. Fauci, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Explain to us why these next couple of weeks are so critical.

FAUCI: Well, what we're seeing now are surges of cases of a higher level in states that previously did not have this level. Some were going down; some were stable. And in situations where they're trying to essentially get back to normal and coming out, it's not working as well in some states as in others. New York is - has been and is working well. They got hit badly and came down, and now as they reopen, they're doing well. But in the states that you just mentioned leading up to the show, it's very clear that we're having increases in cases.

And when I say the next couple of weeks are going to tell - because as you continue to get these cases, what you're going to start seeing - we don't want to see it, but it's going to happen - is increase in hospitalizations. And then you're going to get into trouble with getting back to the same kind of thing that we had when we were in trouble. So we really need to push hard to try and contain these infections by doing identification, isolation and contact tracing - hopefully, doing it in an effective way.

MARTIN: So we're talking about states like Arizona, Texas, Florida, particularly hard hit...

FAUCI: Florida. Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Hard hit right now.

FAUCI: Yeah.

MARTIN: So is any of this - is the spike linked to the fact that these are some of the states that opened up early?

FAUCI: You know, you can't specifically pinpoint it and say, yes, this is the case, but it's highly suspicious that when you have people who come out and, as you see the pictures on TV, people who are feeling invulnerable out there in a crowd with no masks, that's a recipe for the kinds of things that we're seeing right now.

It's really unfortunate because there's this feeling, particularly among young people - because if you look at the demography of the people who are getting infected, most of them are really quite young - 20s, early 30s - the kinds of people that you see go out, get - feel pent up, go out to a bar, go out to a crowd and don't wear a mask, exactly the kinds of things that we're telling them not to do. I mean, it's understandable, the urge of people wanting to do that. But I think people don't appreciate that they are all part of a process, and the process is a dynamic viral outbreak.

And even if you don't have a great chance of getting seriously ill, the fact that you get infected, you may then infect someone else who then infects someone who is a vulnerable person - you know, your grandma, grandpa, your uncle who has an underlying disease. So you kind of feel like, oh, nothing's wrong here. I mean, if I get infected, then I just, you know, will maybe feel badly for a day or two or maybe not even feel sick at all because 20% to 40% of the people who get infected are, in fact, without symptoms.

And that's the confusing part about all this because people don't appreciate, when they get infected, that they are part of a process that's being propagated that we're trying to put our arms around and stop.

MARTIN: But let me ask you, Dr. Fauci - it was my understanding that, in order for states to reopen, that they had to implement widespread testing; they had to have a plan for contact tracing. You're saying that hasn't happened.

FAUCI: Well, it's not working. I mean, I'm sure they are trying to do that. But what is happening - it's not working. They're opening up, and people are very likely and - I mean not very likely; we're seeing it on TV, we're looking at it in the pictures in the newspapers - are doing things that you should not be doing. You should not be congregating. Even when you open, it should be in a gradual process. We put a lot of effort into the guidelines to open America again, and you reach certain checkpoints.

When you get to a checkpoint, you go to the next one carefully. That doesn't mean you throw caution to the wind. And those are the - some of the things that we're actually seeing when you take a look at the visuals of people doing that.

MARTIN: So...

FAUCI: That really needs to stop.

MARTIN: People model their behavior, frankly, after what they see leadership doing. I want to play a clip from a doctor named Cheryl Holder. She is in Miami, which as you know is one of the hardest-hit regions in Florida right now. And here is why she says the virus continues to spread.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHERYL HOLDER: Because the message hasn't been consistent. And we see many times people are out without masks and they seem to be well, that we will take a chance. If we consistently, as a community, speak clearly and speak that this is the best method to protect you and protect others is to socially distance, use your mask, use a face shield - that may be even better.

MARTIN: I know this is an uncomfortable question. But President Trump says he has tested all the time, and that's why he doesn't wear a mask. But do you believe he is shirking his responsibility in terms of setting a public health example?

FAUCI: You know, Rachel, you're right; it is an uncomfortable question, and it's not helpful for me to be pointing fingers at leaders, except to say that - just my message. I wear a mask. I'm a public health official. For better or worse, I'm very visible. So I want to set the example that people need to do that. And they keep - have to keep hearing. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to be on your show to continue to say that to your listeners, that this is extremely important.

Avoid congregation in crowds. If you feel you must do that, which I recommend you don't, then wear a mask at all times. And if you're in a situation where there's a lot of animation and you're, you know, chanting or shouting or whatever it is you're doing, please avoid the temptation of pulling your mask down. It makes a difference.

MARTIN: Are you concerned that the whole idea of wearing masks has become politicized? I mean, there's some polling out there saying Democrats are more likely to wear them than Republicans.

FAUCI: You know, that - Rachel, you're correct. I can't deny that. And that is really unfortunate. I mean, we are all in this together - if there ever was a time in the United States for people to put aside any kind of political divisiveness and say, we are all in this together. There are no such a thing as one group versus another group because, even the group that feels that they're invulnerable, A, they're not invulnerable, and, B, they're part of the propagation of the process. And that's where I think the confusion is.

People say, well, it's my life. I want to do what I want to do. Don't tell me what to do. I mean, there's a lot of good things about our country, that there's a spirit of independence. I mean, that's how the Founding Fathers, you know, had our country go the way it is. But, you know, you've got to curtail that a little bit because you're part of a society, and this is a societal problem; it's not an individual problem.

MARTIN: I want to turn to some possible solutions here. There's a lot of effort and money going into developing a vaccine as soon as possible. One vaccine, you've said, will enter its last phase of human testing in July.

FAUCI: Correct.

MARTIN: I mean, we all want to see a vaccine. We all want to see a vaccine fast. But can you talk about the costs of pushing through, the actual detriment - if there is any - to pushing it through so quickly?

FAUCI: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks, Rachel. That's an important question that I welcome answering. The detriment and the risk is purely financial. There is not compromise of safety. There is not compromise of scientific integrity. So what is being done is that we are making steps rather than waiting and saying, let's see if this works and then we'll invest financially in preparing sites for a trial or manufacturing the vaccine at a high level even before you know it works.

Normally, in the process of developing vaccines, companies would never take that chance. It's risking hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe a half a billion to a billion dollars. The government is investing in that, in taking that risk away and saying, proceed. And you'll save several months, many months, but you're not compromising safety.

And I think it's important for us to get that message out, particularly when we're in an environment, in many cases, of an anti-vaccine or anti-authority or anti-government feeling that they don't want the government to be telling them, you know, we need to get you vaccinated. We've got to be out there in getting that message that people understand. This is going to be done without any compromise of safety and with the highest degree of scientific integrity.

MARTIN: Do you think there is an adequate balance between the effort and money going towards a vaccine and treatment for people who get infected...

FAUCI: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...Which could save lives?

FAUCI: Oh, no. No, not at all. In fact, it's some good news there. As you know, in a randomized placebo-controlled trial just recently published from our group here that involved multiple centers, a single drug, the first one has shown clearly to be safe and to be effective in diminishing the time to recovery, a drug called remdesivir. Another drug, which the Brits just recently announced, is a drug that we've kind of been using all along, but they proved that in advance disease...

MARTIN: Yeah.

FAUCI: ...People on ventilators, it definitely decreases the death rate. So we're making a lot of progress on therapy.

MARTIN: OK.

FAUCI: Really, I'm quite pleased with it.

MARTIN: Last question. We've had three months of lockdowns. Americans have made real sacrifices - many lost jobs, social isolation. And now we've got these spikes. I mean, how - what is your message to Americans about what they need to do right now in terms of sacrifice?

FAUCI: Yeah. Yeah. Really simple - look at the guidelines. The leaders, the governors, the mayors, the local leaders at the county level - look at the guidelines. Many of the governors and the mayors are doing well, but it's the people that are out there that are not listening because, as you said, they're pent up. Please restrain that. If you follow the guidelines and do it slowly and discreetly and do it very carefully, we'll get through this. We will get through it.

MARTIN: But we're not there yet.

FAUCI: We are certainly not there yet. No, we're not.

MARTIN: Dr. Anthony Fauci, we so appreciate your time this morning, and we hope to hear from you again soon. Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH. Thank you, sir.

FAUCI: Thank you. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.