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U.S. needs to 'double down' on COVID-19 testing efforts: Harvard Doctor

As Americans head back to work, some health officials are concerned about the possible rise in coronavirus infections. Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Global Health Institute Dr. Tom Tsai joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to discuss.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: And switching gears to coronavirus, we've seen in some states like North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Iowa that there have actually been spikes in their positive case numbers, so a really unfortunate trend there. And to chat this, we have Dr. Thomas Tsai. He's the assistant professor in department health policy and management at the Harvard Global Health Institute. Dr. Tsai, thank you so much for joining us. I think just start off, what do you see as the reason for that seemingly reversal of that positive trend, the decline in case numbers? Why are we seeing this spike?

TOM TSAI: Thank you, Kristin. That's an excellent question, and I think that the numbers really confirm a fear that many public health researchers had was that we were opening too soon in several of the states around the country before we had satisfied the gating criteria in terms of seeing a 14-day decline in positive cases, a test positive rate before we had our contact tracing infrastructure set in place. And some states may have entered phase one reopening too soon.

What's important is how the states are going to respond to these changing numbers of cases. And are we actually going to reinvigorate our process around testing and contact tracing to make sure we're protecting the public.

KRISTIN MYERS: Do you at all envision that any of these states, particularly ones that might have reopened too soon, which, on some levels is a little bit regional, do you think they might return to a state of lockdown or, you know, reinstate some of those stay at home orders?

TOM TSAI: Right it's not an on-off switch in terms of the response to social distancing. It needs, really, to be a dial. And that response has to be dialed up or dialed down. And there's lots of shades of gray in between. It's not about a single blunt instrument. We have a whole toolbox of instruments to combat COVID-19. That includes testing, contact tracing, physical distancing of 6 feet as well as universal masking. So there's a lot of things that we can do well, that we need to do well. And I think we need to double down on those efforts.

It doesn't mean re-shutting down the economy. But it really means reinvigorating our efforts to stop the spread in vulnerable areas and in the overall public.

KRISTIN MYERS: So Doctor, I'm wondering if any of these numbers that we're seeing might just be-- I don't want to call it a fluke but, you know, maybe just a slight pop because we had Memorial Day weekend, you know, just a couple of weeks ago. And we saw all those pictures of people going to parties, going to bars, going to restaurants. I mean, could this just be that, you know, one time sort of pop in those numbers, or is this the second wave?

TOM TSAI: It's hard to tell. And so instead of one single narrative around the country like we had during the shutdown in March, April, and May, now we have 50 different narratives. And the 50 states are all opening on different timelines. And it's going to be very difficult to channel-- to tease out what's driving each of the changes that we're seeing.

What we do know that is that we need to double down our testing efforts. The US is now testing about 450,000 tests a day. But we need to do more, as many as 900,000 tests a day or more in order to actually suppress the COVID-19 pandemic. So we need to shift our attitude from just keeping the lid on the pandemic. We have the opportunity now, if we expand our testing and contact tracing, to really drive not just the peak into a plateau but make sure we come off the mountain and actually hit a valley before we enter the fall and winter. So there's an incredible moment of opportunity over the next weeks to months. We really need to build on the success in terms of the recent improvements in testing.

KRISTIN MYERS: Right, so to that point, I want to ask you about the vaccine. We heard Moderna entered the phase two of their clinical trial. The administration has been saying, you know, with Operation Warp Speed, as they've been calling it, that we're going to have a vaccine out by the end of the year. Do you share that same level of optimism? Are we going to have a vaccine by Jan 1, 2021?

TOM TSAI: I don't have the same crystal ball the administration seems to have. Most of the data suggests that it's about a year to year and a half before we actually have the vaccines in place. And I think it's important to not catch our chickens before they hatch.

We have tried and true methods that work. We know social distancing works. We know that testing works. We know that contact tracing works. So I think we shouldn't abandon those efforts. We should follow the roadmap that South Korea and other countries have done so well and focus on that. And when the vaccine comes and we're ready, so much the better. But I wouldn't hang our hat on waiting for a vaccine to come at a warp speed when we actually have tools that work right now.

KRISTIN MYERS: So just as a last question for you here, Doctor, I want to chat about some news that we got from American Airlines just the other day that they're actually increasing domestic flights for the summer. When you hear news like that, does that make you worry that we're going to start to see, you know, a second wave or more spikes in cases as people decide, you know, to get on a plane and travel to other states?

TOM TSAI: I definitely do worry about that. And the devil's in the details in terms of what we're actually doing to screen our passengers before they get on the flights, what we're doing to protect the passengers while they're on the flights. Are we actually mandating masks. Are we following good hand hygiene, distancing as much as possible within a cramped plane.

So it's all about decreasing the risk. Nothing is 100% or zero. But it's layering on all the things that we know that can decrease the risk and making sure that we do it well. So I am worried. But I'm also optimistic that if we follow the right protocols, there is a middle ground.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Dr. Tom Tsai, Harvard Global Health Institute. Thank you so much.

TOM TSAI: Hey, thank you, Kristin.