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Coronavirus fight: ‘This will not be licked by Easter,’ doctor warns in call for two-week US lockdown

Paramedics wearing protective equipment carry a stretcher into Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Angus Mordant | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump wants the country to “open up,” but a growing number of health experts want a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those experts are saying the United States needs to impose a two-week or longer pause of non-essential activity before federal and state governments can even think about economic and social life starting to return to normal. 

Far tighter restrictions on businesses and individuals need to be adopted, not the loosening of restrictions called for by some, including Trump, the experts say. 

“This will not be licked by Easter,” said Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who is one of the loudest voices calling for a shutdown.

Trump suggested earlier this week that at least some areas of the U.S. could return to normal by Easter, saying he would love to see churches “packed” on that day, April 12.

Dr. Aaron E. Carroll

Source: Dr. Aaron E. Carroll

Trump plans this weekend to hear recommendations from the White House coronavirus task force on plans to “open the country up.”

Vice President Mike Pence, who heads that task force, said Thursday, “The president has made it clear that in his words he wants to open the country up.”

“But we’re going to do that responsibly, and as the president told the governors today, we’ll do that based on the data,” said Pence.

On Friday, a day after Pence spoke, there were more than 86,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., and 1,301 confirmed deaths from the virus.

Carroll said the rising number of cases and the pressing need to get even better data on how the virus is spreading are strong evidence against opening up the country anytime soon.

“There’s a lot of people who want to wish away the problem,” Carroll said.

But, he added, “We have not faced a virus or an infection that is this infectious and this dangerous and for which we have had no resistance or immunity since the flu of 1918,” when tens of millions of people died worldwide from that pandemic.

“This is a combination of stuff that we’ve not seen before,” Carroll said. “It’s really important that we treat it as that.”

“If we do take a national pause it will flatten the curve” of the pandemic’s trajectory and avoid many deaths, Carroll said.

“The danger will be that some states will take restrictions off and some people will believe that it’s safe to go about normal business,” he said. “Then it will come roaring back.”

On Thursday, the Trump White House health advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the U.S. “can start thinking about — thinking about — getting back to some degree of normality when the country as a whole turns that corner” of reducing the trajectory of the coronavirus curve.

That curve currently is on track to surpass the rate of spread seen in Italy, which has been the European country hit hardest by COVID-19 so far. 

On Thursday, the U.S. became the leader worldwide in the number of coronavirus cases, with New York City becoming the epicenter of the outbreak in the nation.

On Friday morning, Dr. Atul Gawande, the CEO of Haven, the joint health-care venture between JPMorganAmazon and Berkshire Hathaway, said the U.S. should lock down to flatten the upward curve of COVID-19 cases.

“Our death toll curve is now worse than when China was at the same stage,” Gawande said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “We have 12 states with more than 1,500 cases. China had one province.”

“We really need a national shelter-in-place,” Gawande said.

Dr. Tina Tan, a board member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said in an interview, “If you don’t keep the restrictions or make them stricter, you’re going to have more people infected, hospitalized, and dying from the disease.”

The ISDA, in a statement this week said, “Statewide efforts alone will not be sufficient to control this public health crisis.”

“A strong nationwide plan that supports and enforces social distancing — and recognizes that our health and our economy are inextricably linked — should remain in place until public health and medical experts indicate it can safely be lifted.”

A group of House Democrats have also called on Trump to order a national shelter-in-place.

Carroll, the Indiana U. doctor, with Harvard University professor of global health Ashish Jha, published an article Monday in The Atlantic titled “Don’t Halt Social Distancing. Instead, Do It Right.” 

Carroll and Jha said the U.S. needs to do two things to stop the spread of the coronavirus and set the stage for getting the country back to normal: Lock down the country, and start “massive, coordinated testing of the population.”

“First, we need a true national pause — a cessation of all nonessential activities,” they wrote.

“It has to last at least two weeks, and everyone needs to participate.”

“If we all distanced ourselves from one another for that long, the outbreak would slow down significantly. Isolating individual family members may not be socially tenable. Because of that, infections are going to continue within families, but broader spread can be curtailed.”

Carroll and Jha wrote that widespread testing must also be done because, “Even today, we don’t know how many people are infected in the community and how many people without symptoms are spreading the infection to others.”

“Such testing must be organized by epidemiologists experienced in this area, not by health-care providers. We need to know the full extent of those who are sick with COVID-19, but we also need to know where the virus is hiding. By setting up testing centers across the nation, we can avoid spreading the infection through our health-care system,” they wrote.

Carroll, like other experts who spoke with CNBC, said that Trump talking about easing instead of significantly tightening restrictions on social and business interactions is not helping stop the pandemic.

“I think he’s eager for good news and eager to have this spun in the right way,” Carroll said.

But, “He has a very large microphone, and if the wrong messages get out about what we should be doing, this is potentially devastating,” Carroll said.

“I just think that the constant pressure to pull a date out of the air without data” about the true transmission rate and the effectiveness of restrictions “is the wrong way to approach this,” Carroll said.

“We’ve got no evidence to show this is under control, so given that, I don’t think there’s any use in setting a date to get back to normal,” he said. “Continuing to promise people that we could or we know is the wrong way to go about it.”

He noted that in Italy, where the disease has progressed further than in the United States, and other parts of Europe where that is the case, tight social restrictions remain in place.

“None of them are saying this is the time to relax,” Carroll said. “They’re 10 days ahead.”

“This is not the time to relax.”

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