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Public health official: Confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases 'a small fraction of the actual number'

The official count of the number of people with coronavirus, or COVID-19, is likely to grossly underestimate the actual stats, according to a public health expert.

“Remember, we did not have testing rolled out when we should have… a couple of months ago,” Dr. Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, told Yahoo Finance’s The Ticker. “We were delayed — now some of those tests are coming forward… [and] the numbers I’ve seen have indicated that this number is a small fraction of the actual number of positive cases in the U.S. I’ve seen estimates from anywhere [between] five to 15 times that number.”

There are currently more than 770,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide, with 20% — or 157,000 — of those cases are in the U.S. as of midday March 30.

Confirmed coronavirus cases are still on the rise. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

On Monday, Trump brought Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to the Coronavirus Task Force podium to announce that "the United States hit 1 million samples tested" in total and that 100,000 tests were being tested each day at this point.

However, on a conference call with governors on Monday, several governors pleaded with U.S. President Donald Trump for medical supplies and testing equipment that they needed urgently.

“It would be shocking to me that if anyone who has had access to any newspaper, radio, social networks or any other communication would not be knowledgeable about the need for test kits,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee told the New York Times. “I can be assured that the White House knows very well about this desperate need for test kits.”

U.S. President Donald Trump takes a new COVID-19 test kit developed by Abbott Labs out of its box during the daily coronavirus briefing at the Rose Garden of the White House on March 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The gap between official stats and the situation on the ground has been a point of contention even before the virus became widespread in the U.S. In mid-March, one professor noted that people shouldn’t believe the numbers they see because of how limited testing was at that stage.

Part of the problem, Dr. Gershon added, is that local health departments are “so busy, so short staffed, that they are not capturing the numbers of positive cases in their own jurisdictions and forwarding it” to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now what we have to do is really identify the emerging hotspots’

The U.S. epicenter of New York reported almost 7,000 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday, bringing the total to nearly 66,500 in the state. While the number of hospitalizations continues to grow, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did note a silver lining.

“We had a doubling of cases every two days, then a doubling every three days and a doubling every four days, then every five,” Cuomo stated. “We now have a doubling of cases every six days. So while the overall number is going up, the rate of doubling is actually down.”

While testing is still relatively scarce — about 1% of New York’s population has been tested thus far — the city is likely to peak in the next week or so, Dr. Gershon said.

“New York City, New York State — the epicenter right now of the epidemic — will peak around April 7 to April 15,” she estimated.

Confirmed coronavirus cases are still on the rise. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

And New York is fortunate in a way, because of how many resources it has at its disposal, she added.

“New York City is huge, dense — over 8 million people living very close by,”  Dr. Gershon said. And unlike other dense cities, “in New York City, we’re blessed to have over 40 hospitals… 11 hospitals alone in the public health system,” she added. “So we do have the resources.”

And while New York “obviously could have done a lot of things much better,” Dr. Gershon stressed that other cities could learn from the city’s experience.

“We could have rolled out testing much sooner. We could have done contact tracing at that point, we could’ve identified those cases, figured out where they were, and looked for hotspots, really put down targeted [quarantine] procedures around those cases,” Dr. Gershon explained.

She added “that’s behind us now — it’s too late for that — now what we have to do is really identify the emerging hotspots [like] Chicago, Detroit… Atlanta.” 

A police officer mans the entrance to a coronavirus (COVID-19) testing center in Hansen Dam Park on March 25, 2020 in Pacoima, California (Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Public health experts are warning about the rise in cases outside of New York and are calling for more testing to better track the spread.

“It putters along and you think you’re OK, then it starts to go up a little and then bingo — it goes up in an exponential way,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told CNN. “That’s what’s happening in New Orleans right now.”

Dr. Gershon back in New York stressed how urgent the situation was.

“We have to go find those cases, surround those cases, get them isolated…tested… in home quarantine,” she stressed. “Because the sooner we can get that curve dropping down, the better it will be for our hospitals.” 

On the conference call with Trump, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan warned that huge spikes of infection in the Navajo Nation could “wipe out those tribal nations.” 

"We're seeing incredible spikes in the Navajo Nation, and this is going to be an issue where we're going to have to figure that out and think about maybe testing and surveillance opportunities," she said. "The rate of infection, at least on the New Mexico side … we're seeing a much higher hospital rate, a much younger hospital rate, a much quicker go-right-to-the-vent rate for this population. And we're seeing doubling in every day-and-a-half … And it could wipe out those tribal nations.” 

Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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