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‘We need to test smarter’ by focusing on ‘high-risk populations’: doctor

Dr. Howard Koh, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, joins The Final Round to discuss his thoughts on the latest developments with the coronavirus and the vaccine race as new cases continue to spike across the globe.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Welcome back to The Final Round. Let's get to the latest on the coronavirus pandemic. And the numbers are not encouraging. New coronavirus cases in the US nearly 60,000, with several Midwestern states reporting higher levels of infection and this of course, as we see the situation over in Europe getting worse.

Anjalee Khemlani joins us now with the latest on this. Anjalee?

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Thanks, Seana. Yes, as you mentioned, 50,000 cases per day we're also seeing rising rolling seven-day averages across the country.

Looking at some of the concerning spots, we already know that parts of the US are also experiencing what would be the first wave of the pandemic, especially when you're looking at states like Montana, Idaho, Wisconsin, Utah, up there in the mountain area. And then looking across the board, the larger, densely populated states like California, Texas, and Florida, which have already had some of the highest numbers, continue to rise.

A focus point as well on the New York-New Jersey area, where we've seen for the past couple of weeks a concerning trend there as well. All to say that this is part of that second wave of the pandemic that was supposed to be hitting, is anticipated.

But how it all pans out remains to be seen. We've already heard of some restrictions in El Paso. We know that North Carolina saw its largest one-day increase, setting a record. So all of this is really playing out exactly the way experts have warned it will. Still waiting to see exactly what individual governments do.

SEANA SMITH: All right. Anjalee, stick with us, because for more on this, we want to bring in Dr. Howard Koh. He's of Harvard's School of Public Health. And Dr. Koh, it's great to have you on the program.

Just listening to what Anjalee was just saying and saying that a lot of these health experts were expecting this second wave, were you expecting it to this magnitude and this early into the fall?

HOWARD KOH: Seana, this is not unexpected. In fact, all the epidemiologists who have studied this virus, and also past pandemics, even the one a century ago, were concerned that the seasonal variation and the colder weather now would cause these rises. So that's what we're witnessing.

And we're also witnessing, unfortunately, a lot of relaxation on the commitment to prevention that the nation has tried to push forward for the last number of months. So we are seeing these rising cases, rising hospitalizations. It's very concerning to see places like Wisconsin building a new field hospital for an extra 500 beds. Lots of states where test positivity is rising as well.

And this is all with flu season here. So we have to be concerned about vaccinating people successfully against that, as we look forward to, potentially, a COVID vaccination effort in the future. So all these trends are going on together, and so we have to double down on prevention and public health right now.

AKIKO FUJITA: Doctor, we had a guest on earlier in the day who talked about a dueling crisis that he's seeing in his hospital. On the one hand, you're seeing a surge in COVID cases. On the other hand, you've increasingly got patients who have cancer, who have cardiovascular issues, who have not been able to see a doctor, who are now coming in with some serious conditions here.

Can you speak to that and how that strains the capacity of these hospitals? They're already dealing with significant capacity as a result of COVID, but this seems to add another layer.

HOWARD KOH: Sure, Akiko. So that's a really important theme in terms of pandemic response. We want what's happening in the community and what's happening in the clinic and the hospital to be working together.

And we have a time now where we're seeing hospitals being stressed and overwhelmed once again, particularly in those states that you mentioned. And then we've seen lots of patients that, first, understandably avoiding hospitals, but therefore delaying care and delaying lifesaving prevention.

So this is why we have to do this together, have the hospital experts and the public health experts in the community working together, make sure that the flow through the hospitals are streamlined and effective and efficient. People need to keep getting the care they need and deserve, not just for COVID, but for all other conditions. And we've got to keep the burden on hospitals and health care providers as low as possible through this flu season and beyond.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Koh, Anjalee here. Looking at what we've seen in terms of increased capacity to some degree for testing, and rapid tests more widely available, are we anticipating a recurrence of what happened in late March and early April, when things were pretty limited, and we're going to see those surges affect the system at large?

HOWARD KOH: Well, the good news is that we have more tests available, and we are testing harder. But we also need, Anjalee, to test smarter. We need to focus on high-risk populations and make sure they're getting aggressively tested. So places like nursing homes and long-term care facilities, making sure that our health care workers get the tests they need, essential workers. And then also focusing on communities of color that have been disproportionately hit. So refining the strategy so that we're not just testing harder but testing smarter is the way we need to go forward.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Howard Koh, great to have you back on the show. We'll talk to you soon.

HOWARD KOH: Thanks. Thanks very much.