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U.S. COVID-19 deaths hit highest 1-day total since May

Dr. Ali Mokdad, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Senior Faculty, joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to discuss the coronavirus mortality count in the U.S. and outlook on reopening schools in the Fall.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Well, the US has recorded its highest number of coronavirus deaths in over a month. That's, of course, as "The New York Times" is reporting that more than 200,000 folks have died from coronavirus. So to chat more about this, we are joined now by Dr. Ali Mokdad. He's a former CDC executive, and is currently Senior Faculty at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The IHME, of course, is over at the University of Washington.

So Doctor, I want to ask you about this news from "The New York Times" first. I know that your expertise is in quantitative epidemiology. IHME is working on tracking, predictive modeling. So when you hear news that there is some sort of data discrepancy, that the death count is actually over 200,000 instead of this 166,000 that we're getting right now, does that-- does that surprise you? Or is that kind of par for the course in tracking a pandemic like this?

ALI MOKDAD: No, that's very true, actually, in every pandemic, where we have excess mortality due to the disease itself, so in this case, COVID-19. And then we will revise our numbers later on by comparing mortality in this month, the same August 2020 and August 2019, we have nothing in difference here except COVID-19. And the surge in mortality would be attributable to COVID-19. That's why you see 200,000 plus and then 160,000, 166,000.

KRISTIN MYERS: What is causing that discrepancy? I mean, we have the CDC reporting. Those numbers were different from the numbers that we saw being provided by Johns Hopkins, which is different than the numbers that some papers are putting out through their own analysis and tracking. Why are we not able to get some sort of consistent figure, one in terms of the death count, but also two in the number of coronavirus cases that we're actually even seeing in the United States?

ALI MOKDAD: So they're two separate issues. So when you count mortality right now during a pandemic, you're counting people who died and have been tested positive for COVID-19. You're not counting people who have died but haven't been tested. So that's one.

Two, you're not counting people who have died from another disease because of COVID-19 preventing them from seeking care or getting the care they needed. So that's what we call excess mortality to COVID-19. So immediate mortality right now is what we are measuring. Excess mortality is what we will be able, later on, to revise our estimates and say correctly how much-- how many people have died from COVID-19.

As far for the number of cases, why aren't we able to get the right number of cases, we're not able to test enough in the United States, in my opinion, and we don't have enough testing right now. And at the same time when we are testing so many people in the United States, we have lost our capacity to do tracing and isolation, because we have a large number of cases on a daily basis that has overwhelmed the public health system.

KRISTIN MYERS: So as you're looking at the data and at the figures and you see that the case counts are rising, but rather that we're actually now getting the largest single number of COVID-19 deaths in well over a month, does that signal to you that this pandemic is getting worse and not better?

ALI MOKDAD: So when you look at mortality right now, it's coming up. When you look at infections in the United States, it's coming down, except for a few states where it's going up. California is alarming because it started going up.

So what you see right now in mortality is depending on our behavior two, three weeks in the past. And what we have seen in the United States when cases go up, Americans start paying attention, wearing their masks. And staying away from each other, and the virus will start coming down. And I hope these good behaviors will continue in the United States to save lives and save our economy.

KRISTIN MYERS: So on that point about wearing masks, I was doing some research a little bit earlier. I saw that you had made some comments about fall sports and how they could reopen. I feel as if I'm constantly seeing on social media, you know, the questions of would you stay in your house and abide by-- abide by a lockdown, or would you wear your mask for a solid month if it meant we could return things to normal, questions like that.

So I kind of want to put it to you and piggy backing off of, you know, what you had said that fall sports could return if people would wear their masks. I mean, could things return to normal if everyone just took this seriously, perhaps stayed inside, stopped traveling, wore their masks? And how many Americans would need to participate in that for us to return to some sense of normalcy?

ALI MOKDAD: If 95% of us wear a mask, we can control this pandemic. We have done it before. If you look what happened before in April, we peaked, then we came down. We came down because we did the right things. Then when we started letting down our guard, cases started going up.

So we have to pay attention. Wearing a mask, staying away from each other, 95% of us, yes, we can open our businesses. Yes, we can have our footballs. But we have to be very careful, and we can't open businesses that are a spreader for the virus, such as bars, right now. So we have to be very careful. But we have done it, and we can do it again.

KRISTIN MYERS: So 95% of Americans, if we can get 95% of folks onboard, you're saying-- I just want to reiterate here-- that we could all be watching football again, going to restaurants, going to bars, going shopping, that we could return to normal, so to speak if 95% of us can get onboard?

ALI MOKDAD: If 95% of us wear a mask-- right now, we're estimating by December 1, 295,000 deaths-- we can save 66,000 lives between now and December 1. This is more-- almost half of the projected deaths between now and December 1. Wearing a mask is very powerful.

And then we have experiments other countries have done. Wearing a mask, staying away from each other, they were able to contain this virus. Here in America, we need to do our part, each one of us, because we have to assume, each one of us, that we are infected. And by wearing a mask, we can prevent the spread of this virus.

KRISTIN MYERS: So of course, as you're talking, I'm thinking about reopening schools. We've got news that the president, he says that we need to reopen schools, otherwise it will be intellectually damaging to students, and he's unveiled new guidelines. He said that he's willing to deploy CDC teams to schools to make sure that schools can reopen. As you guys-- IHME that does a lot of the predictive modeling in terms of the deaths, does that change your estimations and your calculations opening schools? Are you seeing large spikes coming, perhaps in the fall, once we reopen those schools?

ALI MOKDAD: So right now in our projections, we are assuming 50% of schools will open and students will come back. And then, of course, we'll update our numbers as new data come in. The debate about opening schools should be not can we open our schools, it's how long can we keep them open? Look what happened in Georgia.

And for us to open our school, we have to contain the virus in our neighborhood. That's-- that's what we need to talk about in the United States, is containing the virus in the neighborhood. Then we can open the school. Then we can open the restaurants.

But to jump and open the schools without containing the virus in your own community, that's a recipe for a disaster, because they'll be spread of the infections among the school. They take it back to their houses, and we start all over again by cases rising in the US. So we have to be very careful. Let's look at what's happening around us, then make a decision for the schools, the football games, the restaurants, and so on.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Dr. Ali Mokdad, Senior Faculty at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Thanks so much for joining us.

ALI MOKDAD: Thank you.