Gottlieb sees ‘grim month ahead’ as virus surges along coasts

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Washington — Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday that the U.S. is facing a “grim month” as coronavirus infections continue to surge along the East and West coasts.

“We have a grim month ahead of us,” Gottlieb said in an interview with “Face the Nation.” “We have a very difficult month ahead of us. Right now, the cases are being led by the coasts.” 

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States is nearing 19 million, while the death toll from the pandemic surpassed 332,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. Infections are spiking in California, Massachusetts, New York and Florida, while they are beginning to decrease across the Midwest and the Great Lakes region.

Public health officials, meanwhile, are warning that the country should prepare to confront the most difficult days of the pandemic, even as two coronavirus vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are being administered to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. 

Gottlieb said there are indications the number of new daily cases is beginning to plateau, though he attributed that to the holidays, when there is underreporting. Additionally, he said the nation likely won’t see the burden on hospitals begin to ease and deaths level off until the end of January.

“I don’t think any part of the country has really done especially well with COVID,” Gottlieb said. “Every state has grappled with this and so I wouldn’t be trying to make comparisons between different states in terms of how they’ve approached this. Every state has had to approach it differently because they’ve all had different challenges.”

As of Saturday, more than 9.5 million doses of vaccines developed by Pfizer, in partnership with Germany’s BioNTech, and Moderna have been distributed, and more than 1.9 million people have received their first of two doses of either vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Gottlieb said he believes the number of people who have received their first shots is likely higher than currently reported, but said the pace is “slower” than what was publicly pledged. Federal officials aimed to produce enough doses of coronavirus vaccines to inoculate 20 million Americans by the end of 2020 through Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s initiative to accelerate development and distribution of vaccines. 

“The idea we’re going to get to 20 million vaccinations by the end of the year, that’s probably unrealistic at this point,” Gottlieb said.

While health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities were among the first to receive the vaccines, a CDC advisory panel recommended that adults 75 years and older and front-line essential workers be in the next group to get their shots.  

Gottlieb said as more doses are manufactured and distributed, officials will “get better systems in place to distribute the vaccines more efficiently,” and will be aided by companies like CVS and Walgreens.

But he warned that trying to vaccinate harder-to-reach populations will present its own challenges.

“It’s going to become significantly more difficult to get those vaccines out, so the fact that we’ve struggled to vaccinate health care workers and nursing home patients, that shows we need to be investing more in these efforts,” he said.

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