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How California Is Dealing With One Of The Country's Worst Surges In Coronavirus Cases

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

COVID-19 continues to break records in the U.S. For the past week, daily caseloads have been higher than the last peak in the spring. The U.S. is now regularly seeing more than 40,000 new cases a day. And yesterday, eight states reported single-day caseload records. White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci told me today things could get much worse.

ANTHONY FAUCI: If you leave the virus to its own devices, it will take off on you.

KELLY: Fauci has warned the U.S. could see 100,000 new cases a day - a hundred thousand - if it doesn't contain the virus. And we will hear more of my conversation with him in another part of the program.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

California was the first state to shut down, and it is currently experiencing one of the country's worst surges. Governor Gavin Newsom announced today that he's walking back openings in 19 counties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: If we want to be independent from COVID-19, we have to be much more vigilant.

SHAPIRO: Bars in California will completely shut down again. Indoor activity will be banned at restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses for at least three weeks. For more about what's happening in California, we're joined now by Bob Wachter, who chairs the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Thank you for joining us.

BOB WACHTER: My pleasure. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: California managed to keep cases low for most of the spring, so what's behind this surge?

WACHTER: Well, we did really well for about three, 3 1/2 months. And I think we let our guard down. We began opening up, which was appropriate. We expected to see a small uptick in cases. But we've seen much more of a surge than we expected. And I think people kind of believed that we had dodged the bullet for three months and we were a little bit impervious. But it's clear that the virus just sits there and waits until it sees an opportunity. It has clearly seen an opportunity in California.

SHAPIRO: You've written that many of the states experiencing spikes right now are doing so because of poorly planned rushed reopenings, but you say California is different. How?

WACHTER: I think the political leadership in California has been quite good. I think, you know, they - we were the first state to go on lockdown. Here I'm in the Bay Area at University of California, San Francisco - we went on lockdown before any other region in the country. And people were quite responsible in the early days. But I think what's happened over time is that the cases - we saw cases in New York, we saw cases in other part of the country, it was real but it was a little bit distant. And I think people came to believe that as the world began opening up again. It was OK to be closer to people. Some people decided not to wear masks, even though the guidance from the government was pretty straightforward. And the consequence is that this has gotten out of hand.

SHAPIRO: So if the leadership did a good job in your view and things are still going off the rails, is there a way to safely reopen?

WACHTER: Well, I think that is the - that's the question that we're all facing. The hope was that we could reopen in a thoughtful, incremental way - try something, see how it went. We're very - we're in a very different place than we were three months ago. We're doing testing. We're doing contact tracing. And then scale back if things didn't go well. And what we've learned is that things didn't go well. So we have to scale things back, as was mentioned previously. An hour ago, the governor announced that we are scaling back the reopening. And I think if we try it again, we'll go a little bit more slowly and a little bit more carefully.

It's also clear that the political leaders have only so much control. I mean, the reason that we're surging here is not so much that it was inappropriate to begin opening up, but it's really the sum total of about 10 or 20 decisions a day that 40 million people are making. And if those people too often congregate too closely or choose not to wear masks, you're going to see an uptick in cases and hospitalizations the way we're seeing.

SHAPIRO: Well, that leads us to the July Fourth weekend coming up. Many public health experts say this surge is tied, at least in part, to people gathering and celebrating over Memorial Day weekend. Are you concerned that Fourth of July gatherings are going to exacerbate the problem even worse?

WACHTER: Absolutely. The virus hasn't fundamentally changed in the last three months. And the people that it likes to strike haven't really changed either, particularly in a state like California, where we've been hit relatively mildly. Very few people have seen the virus before and have antibodies to it. And so anything that we do that brings us closer together and where people are not wearing masks increases the risk. And clearly, that's something we all have to worry about over the Fourth of July.

SHAPIRO: So Governor Newsom has announced that he's going to ban indoor activity at restaurants, theaters and other businesses in 19 counties. What's your reaction? Does that go far enough? Is it too aggressive? Are people going to gather anyway since it is summer and the weather is nice?

WACHTER: It's - I think it's an appropriate reaction, and it represents scaling back from where we were. And then we'll see. He has already put one county in California - Imperial County - on - back to lockdown. And if this doesn't work, and if we don't see the curves begin to go in the right direction, I have no doubt that we'll do more. I think the question really is more up to the people of California. This is really true for the entire country. It really is about what we all choose to do, whether people keep their distance, avoid large gatherings and reliably wear masks. It's not that complicated if people can do that - and I recognize it's tricky, given the mixed messaging that's come out from the federal government. But if people can reliably do that, there's very little question that we can turn this around. And we were able to do it in March, April and May. There's no good reason that we couldn't do it now.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly to conclude, you tweeted this week that in March, when the pandemic began, you were scared. Now, you're mostly depressed. What do you mean by that?

WACHTER: I mean, in March, none of us knew what was really going on. We didn't know how the virus spread. We didn't really - there was a lot that we didn't know. Now we know a ton, and we know how to prevent it. We know how it spreads. We know about the value of masks and distancing. So now it's just sad that we find ourselves in this situation.

SHAPIRO: Bob Wachter is the chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Thank you for talking with us.

WACHTER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.