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CDC Director Redfield Speaks On U.S. Readiness And Latest Guidance For Coronavirus


One more month - that is the new endpoint for how much longer we'll need to practice social distancing, gathering in small groups and restricting travel to only what's essential. The president extended those federal guidelines to the end of April yesterday. And while President Trump has been holding almost daily press conferences at the White House on the coronavirus response, we haven't heard much from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's the country's leading public health agency.

But today Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC director, spoke with Health Reporter Sam Whitehead at WABE in Atlanta. That's where the CDC is headquartered. And Sam Whitehead joins us now.



CHANG: So I understand that you and Dr. Redfield talked for about 20 minutes. Did you hear anything from him that we haven't yet heard from President Trump?

WHITEHEAD: Well, Redfield essentially admitted the country wasn't ready for this pandemic. Now, it's unclear if any country was totally prepared, but he did say the United States wasn't ready. And here's some tape of that.

ROBERT REDFIELD: I don't think anybody would disagree that, for decades, collectively, our nations underinvested in public health. Now I think people understand that that can really have significant consequences. And now is the time for us to overinvest, overprepare in public health. This virus is going to be with us.

WHITEHEAD: And that's a significant admission. It's not what we've been hearing, say, from President Trump. He said, we've had the best health care system - we have the best health care system in the world. But that's not really what we're talking about here. This isn't about treatments like knee replacements. We're talking about public health, and that means stopping infections and making the whole country healthier, preventing and containing outbreaks just like this one.

That said, Redfield did talk about the money coming from Congress now to help ramp up testing and tracking infections and contacting people, but he wouldn't say when all that testing data might be compiled in one place, nationally, to paint a picture of what's going on.

CHANG: Did he say anything new that the CDC has learned about not only the coronavirus but just how it's transmitted?

WHITEHEAD: Well, he focused on the fact that lots of people who get infected with the coronavirus will not have symptoms. He said that could be up to 25% of people - that's 1 in 4. And for the other 75% of people who do have symptoms, those folks could be shedding significant amounts of virus, say, from their nose or mouth or throat probably for up to 48 hours before symptoms appear. He also said the coronavirus seems to be quite a bit more contagious than the flu, which was something we hadn't heard yet.

CHANG: Oh, that's interesting. So if that's the case, what does that mean for how we can stop spreading the coronavirus?

WHITEHEAD: Well, it has the CDC looking again at the practice of wearing masks. For many weeks, we've heard from the agency that masks weren't necessarily useful for members of the public. The idea was maybe to save them for health care workers.

CHANG: Right.

WHITEHEAD: But Redfield says CDC's - the CDC's mask stance is being aggressively reviewed. He says the agency wants to see if there is value for people who may not be infected - who may be infected, rather, but not showing symptoms to wear a mask. The idea wouldn't be that a mask would keep you from getting sick, but it would maybe stop you from spreading the virus to others.

CHANG: OK, so the CDC has not revised the guidance for masks so far, right?

WHITEHEAD: No, no. But that is something that they are taking another look at.

CHANG: OK. So what was Dr. Redfield's overall message to the public, then?

WHITEHEAD: Well, that message is still evolving. On one hand, he says people should take the CDC's recommendations for social distancing seriously. He says it's the best tool we have right now. And here he is with that.

REDFIELD: This is not just a little recommendation on a piece of paper; this is a very powerful weapon.

WHITEHEAD: On the other hand, though, when Redfield discussed what comes next, he got a little bit more speculative. He said there might be some parts of the country that could open themselves up once we have a clear picture of how this virus is spreading. In his words, that could be in four, six or eight weeks. But other researchers say, even at that point in the U.S., some 95% of the country will not have been exposed to the virus. So reopening even some parts of the country at that time could be really risky.

CHANG: Right. That is Sam Whitehead at WABE in Atlanta.

Thank you, Sam.

WHITEHEAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Whitehead is a reporter with GPB News.He has worked with “Here and Now,”NPR News, “State of the Re:Union,”WSKG News, andWRVO News. He also co-foundedWRFI Community Radio Newsin Ithaca, New York.He hasn’t won any awards yet.In his free time, he tries to become a better storyteller. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.