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'We need to really prioritize schools staying open': Dr. Uche Blackstock on states stepping up COVID-19 restrictions as cases rise

Dr. Uche Blackstock, CEO of Advancing Health Equity and Yahoo News Medical Contributor, joined Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and her thoughts on certain states stepping up restrictions.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: We spoke with earlier on Yahoo Finance Live, earlier this week, Dr. Michael Osterholm. Now he's one of the COVID-19 advisors to President-elect Biden. And he weighed in just on what could possibly be needed to get the virus under control. Let's listen.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: If we did that, then we could lock down for four to six weeks. And if we did that, we could drive the numbers down, like they've done in Asia, like they did in New Zealand and Australia. And then, we could really watch ourselves cruising into the vaccine availability in the first and second quarter of next year and bringing back the economy long before that.

SEANA SMITH: For more on this, we want to bring in Dr. Uche Blackstock, the CEO of Advancing Health Equity and Yahoo News medical contributor. Dr. Blackstock, it's great to have you back on the program. Going off of what we just heard, I mean, right now, we have 45 states seeing a jump in the number of cases. Not a single state in the US is seeing an improvement at this point. From your perspective, what do you think needs to be done right now, just to get this virus under control?

UCHE BLACKSTOCK: So thank you for having me on, Seana. You know, I think that we are, obviously, in the worst of it. And we haven't seen the worst of it. It's going to be a long, hard winter. And while I think, you know, obviously, a national shutdown would be a wise strategy, I don't think that's going to fly with all of the governors. But I think what's going to have to happen is both state and local leaders are going to have to make some really hard decisions.

And so, while they may not be a national lockdown, what we definitely need to see are at least statewide mask mandates. We may need to see some closures of nonessential businesses, specifically indoor dining and gyms, which we saw recently, in the study, are really responsible for most of the transmission of the virus.

And, you know, I think that public health messaging is going to be incredibly key. We need to make sure that we're explaining to people what's going on, that they understand the severity of our current situation in terms of cases accelerating exponentially. And, you know, the strategy for outreach and messaging is going to be incredibly important at this critical point.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Dr. Blackstock, when we hear these comparisons of how Asian countries have successfully beaten down the numbers of new infections, it also includes big tracking. They have the ability to track cases. And we really don't in the United States, or do we? Because isn't that a key component if you're going to lockdown?

UCHE BLACKSTOCK: Yeah, and obviously, I think we need a robust testing and contact tracing infrastructure in place, which we don't have. I think some states are doing it better than others, like my state of New York, where, essentially, anyone can get a test. And we have a very large contact tracing core group of people reaching out to people who end up testing positive.

But the fact is, is that, essentially, we have 50-- each state is behaving like it's its own country. And so everyone sort of has different guidelines and restrictions going on. It's not consistent at all. And we essentially need a collective response to the crisis that we're in right now to see any change in those numbers that are growing exponentially.

SEANA SMITH: And Dr. Blackstock, just comparing what we could see if we do see a national lockdown compared to what you're describing right now, states doing their own thing, I mean, how much better would the situation be in two months if we were to have a national lockdown?

UCHE BLACKSTOCK: You know, I think it would be dramatically better. I think some of the data coming out of the University of Washington is saying that, you know, between 100,000 and 200,000 lives would be saved if we did have a shutdown over the next few months.

And so, again, you know, we've seen in Asian and European countries how lockdowns have worked. I believe Germany is undergoing one now and France is undergoing one, while they are still prioritizing schools. But they're keeping those nonessential businesses that we know are niduses of viral spread, they're keeping them closed.

And I think that we need to really recheck our priorities. I understand that, you know, businesses are going to suffer. We have to find a way through the stimulus bill to help support them and support their workers as well. But we need to really get through this with as few deaths as possible.

ADAM SHAPIRO: In New York, we had that big lockdown in the spring, and we're still trying to recover from that. And we may be headed towards another one, at least getting tighter. What more can the state government do? Since right now, the federal government seems to be deficient to help the businesses that would get impacted, whether it be a gym or a restaurant or any of them.

UCHE BLACKSTOCK: Right, so I think that, you know, what we know is that in order to see any significant decline in cases, we're probably going to need to have small businesses, restaurants, gyms closed for at least four to six weeks, if not more. And so we need ways, you know, to assist the owners and the workers through that time.

And so, obviously, the state-- states are having difficult times with their budgets, as are cities like New York City. So we're going to have to find the funds from somewhere to help support them because this is really incredibly important to do right now.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Blackstock, in the midst of all this, I think there's a lot of parents out there that are questioning whether or not they should be sending their child to school right now, or maybe now is the time for some of these districts to end in-person classes. How are you thinking about all that when you take into account-- I mean, obviously, it's a very regional story. But like Anjalee was just telling us, more seats than not are seeing this dramatic rise in the number of cases day in and day out.

UCHE BLACKSTOCK: Yeah, and it's like you said, Seana. It's definitely regional. However, you know, it's a deeply personal decision. But also, you know, you have to weigh the risks and the benefits. We know what we know now from data from not only the US, but from European and Asian countries, is that schools are not key drivers of infection.

And so the data, while it's not complete, that's what the data is telling us. And so I think that in terms of thinking about what needs to close, you know, we need to really prioritize those schools staying open. And so, I think that the strategy should be closing non-essential businesses, seeing what that does to the rates. Obviously, if we're in a community where the transformation rate is incredibly high, say, over 20 20% positivity rate, then, of course, schools should stay closed.

But if we're in areas like New York City where the transmission rate or positivity rate is about 2.4%-- it was yesterday-- you know, I think that we need to think about strategies like maybe K through 5, so young kids who we know are less likely to get infected or transmit the virus, students with disabilities, students who live in shelters, we really need to prioritize keeping the schools open for them. So we need to use a measured evidence-based strategy for thinking about what schools need to close and which ones should stay open.