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‘We have a silent COVID-19 epidemic emerging right now in K-12 schools': Doctor

Associate Dean for Global Health at University of Alabama at Birmingham Dr. Michael Saag joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss the state of the country as schools struggle to open due to COVID-19.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Shifting back to the pandemic at hand, as that has been the driving force of this recovery for quite some time, interesting to see the case count here across the globe continue to tick higher. When we track that, some worrying numbers here, just to show you in terms of where we go from here. And that has a lot of medical experts concerned that we could see lockdown measures here in the US come back.

We're already seeing that play out in Israel. But overall, more than 30 million cases of the coronavirus have been reported worldwide as of yesterday. And in short order here in the US, the death tally count here could surpass 200,000, perhaps even this weekend. So here to discuss all of the updates on the coronavirus front with us is Dr. Michael Saag, Associate Dean for Global Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

And Dr. Saag, good to be chatting with you again here. And one of the key things that we've been watching have been recently, over the last couple of weeks here, you tracked the case counts trending in the opposite direction. We'd seen those come down across the nation, now seemingly rising every day.

And I wonder how much of that you think might be tied back to the reopening of schools and some of the risks there that the CDC has admitted come from transmission of kids back to adults, whether it's in the classroom and then bringing that back home.

MICHAEL SAAG: That is the key thing, Zack. I believe that we're having a silent epidemic merging right now within the K through 12 schools. On college campuses, we saw hotspots emerge. But we knew it because we were testing. And at the University of Alabama at Auburn in my neck of the woods, they had big spikes towards the end of August.

But they're getting under control. Because they know who's infected. They can quarantine. And the students have paid attention now. But in K through 12, we're not doing that. And it's exactly as you just said, the students could be transmitting. In fact, I would almost bet that it's transmitting. And what I think's going to happen over the next four weeks is we're going to see the numbers increase.

And the thing to watch is the percent positives. So right now in Alabama, we're at about 16% to 17% positive tests. New York, for example, is less than 1%. So now extrapolate, we're going to see that happen. It's going to be, I'm afraid, our October surprise. That what we're going to have is an explosive number of adults showing up, because they picked it up from the kids who have been back in school. And I'm very worried about that right now.

ZACK GUZMAN: I mean, there's that concern. There's also the concern when we talk about positivity rates. I would highlight Florida as one of the states we're watching here as well. Because they reported a new low in positive COVID-19 test rates here. They haven't seen that 5% level since back in early June. And now they're there.

I mean, that's where they've been. Their rates been under 5% for seven consecutive days. So on that front, it's also a state that's reopened bars. We saw that happen in 50% capacity. Again, they've done that before and then saw an uptick. So based on where that positivity rate is now, as they reopen bars, that would be another thing to watch here. How concerned are you about that?

MICHAEL SAAG: Well, I'm concerned very much about bars reopening. Because there's no way to make a bar safe. You're by definition have your mask down. By definition, you're drinking and talking. It's a social environment. And people are typically packed together. I think what Florida, for example, and New York had in common is they experienced a crisis, New York back in April, Florida back in July and August. And that got everyone's attention.

The difference, New York's had the discipline to stay reasonable and stay in control. And Florida's relaxing. So what we might want to watch is that percent positivity. And if this is going forward, I'm not a meteorologist for COVID. But it feels that way sometimes. And I think the number's are going to start coming back up in October.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, it's hard to be a meteorologist for this. Because so many unknowns had been there and existed for so long. But you've been very good in terms of raising concerns. And we've seen some of your concerns here prove true, as we've moved along. So I would just want to ask you this as well. When we see cases rising in Spain and France, above what we saw back in March when this was really bad, and you've got Israel locking down again.

I mean, it's hard to really put these things together and say, how can we not see that play out back here again in the US, when we think about how hard hit we were relative to Europe and the projections from IHME saying that deaths will surpass what we saw in March come Q4?

MICHAEL SAAG: All that's true. And Israel's a fascinating story. Because they did it right at the beginning. They got it under control. They had this incredible technology where they tracked people who were infected. And they were so proud. They were exporting some of their technology to other countries to keep it under control. And now they have the highest case rate in the world right now. Because they relaxed.

We can't relax. This virus is here. It's like a ghost. It's kind of hanging out. It's in the area. We can't see it until we start seeing the cases come up. So what do we need to do? It's the simple mantra that we've heard before, masks, keeping distance from other people, avoiding large crowds, like a bar, and making sure that we're washing our hands. And now the flu shot, we can get into that a little bit.

But the take-home point is that we know what to do. I agree with Director Redfield of the CDC. A couple of days ago, he testified that if we wore masks regularly, 95%, 98% of us, that's really as effective as a vaccine is in terms of preventing transmission. We're just not doing that. Add a vaccine to the equation, we can get this under control, for sure. But we have the tools in our hand right now. Why are we not using them?

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, we've been asking that for a few months now as we've dealt with all this. But Doctor Saag, before we let you go, I mean, this is kind of one of those things that we've been trying to figure out. Because even if you do have people wearing masks, a good example might be pointing to the return of the NFL season. We saw this play out at Arrowhead Stadium.

We had the mayor of Kansas City on talking about fans coming in. It would be safe. You'd wear masks. Now we see reports there of at least one case and contact tracing to try and get it under control and figure out who that fan may have come into contact with. But this, to your point, I mean, you take the mask down to eat and drink when you're in the stadium. And there are these risks.

So when you think about all of that coming back together. And you say, we have to wait until a vaccine if people don't want to wear masks. That wait looks long. I mean, you listen to the CDC, and it says Q3, Q4, next year Q2, Q3. I mean, it seems like we're going to be stuck in this for awhile.

MICHAEL SAAG: We are. And to be honest, I don't want to go into politics. But I will raise the question. I personally do not understand why the president is not just doubling down but tripling down on the mask wearing. It doesn't add up. Because back in February, we now have tapes from Bob Woodward that say he knew it was spread by the air. OK.

And let's say we didn't do the right thing upfront. But now we're in September. We know what works. We know it's there. Why aren't we seeing a tripling down on this? And it splits the country. And it makes all of our jobs harder to do what we need to do. If we could just all pull together, wear a mask, it's sort of a patriotic duty to protect ourselves, our family, our community. Let's just do that, and maybe we'll get this under some degree of control.