The country’s recent progress against Covid-19 could be short-lived if Americans do not continue to take precautions like mask wearing and social distancing, HHS testing czar Brett Giroir said Wednesday.
The number of new infections has decreased nationwide by 48 percent following a spike beginning around Memorial Day, while the number of coronavirus patients in intensive care units has dropped by 62 percent and deaths have fallen 33 percent over the same period, Giroir said during a Senate hearing.
Still, Giroir and CDC Director Robert Redfield hammered home warnings that America won’t return to a new normal anytime soon, even as President Donald Trump insists the country has rounded the “final turn” in its battle against the coronavirus. Public health experts warn the country could see a rebound in cases in the coming months as the flu season approaches and people spend more time indoors.
“Let me say emphatically that these gains could be fleeting or even reversed if we do not continue to follow the national plan and exercise personal responsibility, especially wearing masks and avoiding crowds,” Giroir told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Redfield implored Americans to continue to use “the powerful tools” of mask wearing and social distancing, even after a vaccine is authorized. Once the first vaccine becomes available, perhaps as soon as this fall by some estimates, it will take six to nine months to vaccinate enough people to achieve enough immunity in the population, he predicted.
Even then, he suggested the first vaccines may not be strongly protective against the virus, as he tried to underscore the importance of masks. Those comments drew notice from public health experts, who questioned the basis for his claim.
“I might even go so far as to say that this facemask is more guaranteed to protect me against Covid than when I take the Covid vaccine because the immunogenicity may be 70 percent and if I don’t get an immune response to a vaccine it’s not going to protect me,” Redfield said. “This facemask will.”
Later Wednesday, Trump contradicted Redfield‘s remark, insisting his CDC director was mistaken on the vaccine timeline and the importance of masks relative to a vaccine. Redfield quickly responded that he believed that a vaccine would get “Americans back to normal everyday life,“ but that the best defenses currently available are mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said while it’s known that masks work in controlled settings, few studies have measured the effectiveness of how they are being used in the real world. She also noted it’s not yet known how effective a vaccine will be.
“From the point of view of limiting ourselves to hard scientific facts, any statement about the relative effectiveness of masks versus vaccines is pure conjecture,” Murray said in an interview. “The important thing is not which one works better but rather, how well can we do by combining everything that we have as available tools.”
Redfield also pushed back against assertions that recent CDC testing guidance ordered up by Trump administration officials discouraged people to be tested, saying it was a “misinterpretation by some.” But he said for testing to be effective, it must be linked to other public health actions like contact tracing — though those efforts are lagging in many places.
“We are not recommending less tests,” Redfield said. “I do believe more tests ultimately are going to lead to less cases in this country because it’s going to allow public health action to happen … and we can use those tools to stop this pandemic.”
Matthew Choi contributed to this report.