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Still 'too early' to start thinking about reopening the economy: Expert

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Harvard Global Health Institute Assistant Professor in Department of Health Policy and Management Dr. Tom Tsai joins Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith to discuss the best time to reopen the economy amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Well, we just heard Jimmy Lee talking about how important the latest coronavirus developments are to investors right now. We're keeping a close eye on the number of cases here in the US. The number of confirmed cases now more than 572,000. We did hear a little bit of good news coming from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier today. And he was out saying that he thinks that we are at the apex of the outbreak, at least in the state of New York.

He was saying that the state recorded a quote, small tick down in the number of hospitalizations." But the number was basically flat. Here to talk more about this, we have Dr. Tom Tsai, of the Harvard Global Health Institute. And Dr. Tsai, thanks so much for joining us once again on the show. It's always great to get your perspective on the latest developments when it comes to the coronavirus.

I want to talk about, since the last time we spoke, the conversation has now shifted. We were talking about how to flatten the curve. And now that we're seeing some positive new developments just in terms of the number of new cases beginning to flatten a little bit, the conversation has now shifted to when will we reopen the economy, when should we reopen the economy. From a health care perspective, from your perspective, do you think we should be talking about that at this point?

DR. TOM TSAI: I think it's still too, much too early to start thinking about reopening the economy. A lot of these early signs are encouraging. And I think is room for some cautious optimism that the efforts from the last month have really started to work in terms of flattening the curve. And I think that's to be applauded. But it's still too soon to rest on our laurels.

I think the data from New York showing that, yes, we may be at the peak, but it's not a rapid fall off the peak back to normal. It's more like a mountain range that we're hitting or a plateau, with peaks and valleys. So it's important for us to still rely on the strategies that have gotten us to this better than anticipated place, and continue to test. Continue to focus on social distancing until there is definitive data that we're on the other side of this.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, Dr. Tsai, you said it's important to continue to test. I know you have advocated for a national testing strategy. What exactly would that entail?

DR. TOM TSAI: Yeah, I think what that means is not just breaking through all the bottlenecks in terms of getting the supply chain figured out. And part of the challenge there is that it's a shifting dynamic nature of bottlenecks. So it's not just swabs. Then it becomes the reagents. We really have to figure that piece out. And we've made some progress, but we can do better. But the strategy is really focused around testing, tracing and isolating. So I think for the next two weeks, we have to focus on catching up on the backlog of tests that have accumulated, so we actually have a picture of what's going on currently in terms of active infections.

And then really start planning from a human workforce standpoint, in terms of being able to trace infected individuals and their contacts and their clusters of contacts, moving to the next stage where we can test cases as they come up once we start lifting the stay at home measures. And then rapidly identifying their contacts, and then testing all those contacts as well. So really being able to implement the test, trace and isolate paradigm.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, what are the chances of a resurgence? Because that is the big concern if we reopen the economy too quickly, the number of people that could be infected in just a few months from now could skyrocket. How big of an outbreak do you think we could potentially see within the next couple of months?

DR. TOM TSAI: Yeah, I think the likelihood of resurgence is very high. And like I said, it's not just one simple bell curve where we hit a peak and then it's a return back to normal. There are going to be multiple recurrences that occur throughout the summer. And the story's going to be very local. So in one part of the country, we may be on the down sloping part of the curve, but it may be rising or peaking in another part of the country.

So I think the story nationally is that we still have to keep our eye on the ball and be vigilant as those cases resurface. Because the data from the other countries has shown that once we lift these quarantine measures, then the chances of community transmission increase. But then in our globalized economy, people are traveling from other places where cases are peaking as well. So the risk of renewed infections from outside our country remain high.

DAN HOWLEY: Dr. Tsai, this is Dan Howley. I followed what Apple and Google had announced on Friday. Then listened to their call yesterday, which they kind of described how they want to use Bluetooth and smartphones to further contact tracing. And I guess, do you think that this is something that would improve our chances of following the virus versus the sheer amount of manpower that's required for regular contact tracing? And could this help to slow the spread of the virus?

DR. TOM TSAI: Yes, I think we need a combination of both new technology, as well as good old fashioned public health measures in terms of contract tracing. Given how spread the coronavirus disease already is, there is no way we can train enough people in a short time frame to do adequate contact tracing right now. So I think we have to rely on technology to be able to identify those cases.

But that means being able to have a tight network of information from the testing agencies reporting to a centralized public health agency, and then that being communicated to public health officials to do contact tracing. So we need the technology in order to do that. And as well as the actual manpower in terms of being able to go out and identify and contact people who may have been in proximity to confirmed cases.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, from the patients that you have been seeing, from the capacity at the hospitals at this point, are the hospitals well-equipped to, or better equipped, I should say, to deal with outbreak than they were at the last time that we spoke?

DR. TOM TSAI: Yeah, I think we've made a ton of progress in terms of the capacity front. But, Seana, what's been so fascinating about COVID-19, is how local this story is. Even in my hometown of Boston, at my hospital, Brigham Women's, our physicians and leaders have done a remarkable job of increasing the number of ICU beds. But just across town, at Massachusetts General Hospital, they're located right next to a major outbreak cluster in East Boston.

So they have three times the volume that we're seeing, even though they're only about three miles down the road. So I think even though hospitals have made remarkable progress in terms of preparing ventilators and ICUs and training physicians, the disease is so local in terms of how the outbreaks are occurring, that they can still rapidly overwhelm and stress hospitals on a local level.

SEANA SMITH: And Dr. Tsai, real quick, I want to go back to what you were talking about earlier, when we were focusing on the possibility of a resurgence and how that is, you say that it's likely that we could see some sort of resurgence here in the US. The WHO yesterday, they were talking about whether, or they were saying that now it's unclear whether recovered coronavirus patients, whether they are immune to a second infection. When we talk about how this could change our thinking about the disease, what do you think about that?

DR. TOM TSAI: Yeah, I think there's two challenges to that. One is from the WHO and from other countries, there are cases, for example, in South Korea, people have tested positive. And then being tested again, who've cleared through negative tests, and then developing the disease later. What we're also learning, is that all of the different tests are not treated the same.

Some of the tests where they've been cleared, there's a high rate of being a false negative rate. So they may have still had the disease, but it may have been falsely tested negative. So I think one, is our standards of tests have to be consistent, especially as the number of tests out there increase. And then two is, also be vigilant for the fact that the antibodies against the SARS coronavirus, too, may not be as robust as we hoped. So I think one is, we have to improve our testing strategy and our testing accuracy. And then two, be vigilant for that test trace and isolate approach as we approach the summer and the fall.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tom Tsai of the Harvard Global Health Institute, thanks so much for joining us this afternoon.

DR. TOM TSAI: Great to be here.