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Fmr. CDC Official on COVID-19 response: 'I don't know why the CDC hasn't gotten its act together'

Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and Former CDC Official, joins Yahoo Finance’s Akiko Fujita to break down the latest coronavirus developments, as the CDC changes their guidelines on aerosol spread of the virus.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's turn our attention to the coronavirus. An alarming rise in those COVID-19 cases in Europe threatening to shut down parts of the economy across the region yet again. The number of new cases hit fresh records in France and Spain last week, while in the UK officials warn there could be 50,000 new infections every day within weeks if the virus continues to spread at the rate it currently is spreading.

Let's bring in Dr. William Schaffner. He is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He's also a former CDC official. Dr. Schaffner, it's always good to talk to you.

Let's start with some of those troubling headlines out of Europe right now. What do you attribute to this most recent spike that we've seen, and how concerning is it when you look at how things have transpired here in the US?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Yeah, so it's very concerning, of course. And Europe seems to be making the same mistakes that we're making in the United States. We're opening-- they're opening too quickly, and carelessly rather than carefully.

I know my son lives in Berlin. And he's told me there've been demonstrations there on behalf of opening up and getting rid of masks. So Europe is developing COVID fatigue, just as we are here. And as a consequence, the virus will take advantage of every opportunity to spread.

AKIKO FUJITA: Is this really just more of the same in terms of the uptick, or is there a particular trend here when you look at how quickly the virus has started to spread yet again there that troubles you that is different from the last wave that we saw early on in the year?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: I think it's really similar. And as the molecular virologists tell us, that there is no major change in the virus-- it's not that the virus has become more transmissible-- it's just that we're offering more opportunities for the virus to go from one person to another. You know, that's the virus's only job, reproduce itself. Infect another person. And it's doing it very well.

AKIKO FUJITA: The concern, at least here in the US, looking at what's playing out in Europe, is that this could have a knock-on effect, and that if there are in fact additional closures that come about over in Europe, that could lead to closures here in the US. What more do you think can be done, short of another economic shutdown, when you look at how the case counts have gone up in certain states here in the US?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, in all frankness, we know that the COVID response has been politicized. If our national political leadership would stop giving us happy talk, and giving us serious talk and say that everybody in the United States should wear a mask when they leave their front door, and do social distancing, and not have these large political gatherings where people congregate together without masks-- and that the rest of us shouldn't be doing that either-- I mean, what's lacking here is national leadership that will help us mute the transmission of this virus.

And we haven't seen that. I can't see anything else out of the dilemma at the moment.

AKIKO FUJITA: On that issue of leadership and just having a uniform guideline, we saw the CDC quietly reverse its guidance, or update its guidance, on COVID-19, saying the virus can spread through respiratory droplets or small particles like those in aerosols. That was what we were hearing at the beginning of today.

And now, since we have heard the CDC is reversing yet again, what do we make of this? And let's talk about where things stood in terms of the updated guidelines before they were reversed. Knowing that the virus can now spread through respiratory droplets, how significant is that? It feels like we've kind of been operating under that assumption up until now.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Yeah, I'm responding in sadness and saying, good grief. I don't know why the CDC hasn't gotten its act together. You know, we've had reports that there's been substantial political influence on some of the CDC regulations and even publications. And that's saddened many of us.

But this latest reversal also sounds confusing. Most public health people will tell you that the majority of transmission still is occurring in enclosed spaces-- that is, indoors-- close within six feet. Can it be transmitted more remotely beyond six feet? Of course.

Is that a major route of transmission? Most of us in public health think not. It can happen, but it's not the highway of transmission. It's a little side street. The highway of transmission is still close-on. That's why social distancing, mask-wearing, and not going to large groups.

Even if there is some aerosol transmission, transmission at a greater distance-- and we think there is-- mask-wearing is the way to reduce that risk. Masks are absolutely fundamental here.

AKIKO FUJITA: So it sounds like you're saying, regardless of which reversal we're going with on this CDC, even if we know this can be transferred through droplets, respiratory droplets, that mask-wearing really is the only way to go here. Are there needs for potentially additional restrictions once we get a little more clarity on the latest understanding of the virus itself?

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Well, masks are key. If we look at aerosol transmission, one of the things I thought the advisory this morning would have done is to the owners of commercial interior spaces is to look at your air handling system, see if you can improve it to get more air exchanges per hour, and consider putting in some filtration devices.

Now, that costs, often, a fair amount of money. And you have to decide whether the juice-- more protection-- is worth the squeeze of retrofitting your air handling system. So if aerosol transmission is only a modest problem, well, then individual owners will have to decide about that. But the persons, all of us as persons can continue to wear masks.

AKIKO FUJITA: Dr. William Schaffner, always good to get your guidance there. He is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.