CDC Director Warns of Work Still to Do as Protests Hasten Virus Spread

Some members of a House subcommittee appeared virtually at a Thursday hearing on the coronavirus pandemic with testimony from CDC director Robert Redfield.

WASHINGTON (CN) — States are easing lockdown rules even as Covid-19 cases and deaths climb across the country, and even as nationwide unrest threatens whatever gains were made, driving one of the country’s top health officials to call Thursday for greater U.S. investment in what lies ahead.

The stark words came at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education where lawmakers — at least those who attended in person — sat several feet apart, a proven safeguard against transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Many wore masks, or the occasional face shield, as others appeared via remote-access video to pose questions to Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As we sit here today, this novel virus is weaving its way through our social consciousness, our outward expression and our grief,” Redfield said. “Today I call on the American people to remain vigilant to protect the vulnerable, your community, your grandparents and loved ones who might be at risk for severe Covid complications.”

Congresswoman Rose DeLauro holds up an image of a mass gathering at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri over the Memorial Day weekend where social-distancing guidelines went unheeded.

The director’s reaction was visceral as Connecticut Representative Rose DeLauro, a Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, held up images of a mass gathering at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri over the Memorial Day weekend where social-distancing guidelines went unheeded.

Shaking his head at the sight, Redfield described concerns that plague him even today both for the hundreds of people packed tightly into a large pool, and for the risk of infection they could bring home to vulnerable parties.

The Missouri Department of Public Health has reported that only one person who attended the gathering contracted the virus, but the state did see a small spike in cases a week after the Memorial Day celebration.

Partygoers reached through contact-tracing have been asked to quarantine themselves, but a similar effort is thought impossible for the tens of thousands who have taken to the streets in streets in the week since to protest the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day.

It’s a system that is still being worked out, Redfield said, noting how the CDC has just 38 contact-tracing teams dispatched to states to assist public health officials.

Without contact tracing fully built out, and with a vaccine still months if not years away, Redfield underlined the need to improve community outreach, which includes more education on how to properly protect oneself from the virus. 

Crowds gather on on May 24 at Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar & Grill in Gravois Mills, Missouri, one of several beach bars along Lake of the Ozarks packed with partygoers during the Memorial Day weekend. (Shelly Yang/Kansas City Star via AP)

Redfield noted how when he walks through the city of Baltimore, where he lives, he sees more people wearing masks than not.

But he said the situation has not been nearly as consistent when he strolls through nearby Washington. 

In addition to disseminating general guidance for containment, the CDC must also determine how to be effective in different communities, like communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned about how this message is resonating. We are continuing to figure out how to penetrate the message with different groups,” Redfield said. “We will continue to try and message as well we can. We’re going to encourage people that have the ability to request or require a mask to continue to do that. We do think this is an important public health tool and we’re going to continue to try and figure out how to get more and more people to embrace it.”

The CDC is expected to release new guidelines later Thursday that are intended to beef up existing containment and mitigation recommendations, but the director acknowledged the package would not include information specific to communities of color. 

“I think we have worked and will continue to work to try and identify and help to develop interventions that could minimize the impact of this to the African-American community,” he said. “The challenge we’ve had is that we haven’t gotten the data we need so we could give the public the analysis.”

Precisely when the CDC will have a handle on how the novel coronavirus is ravaging these communities is unclear.

“The time is now to get a purposeful program to address these inequities,” Redfield said.

The director did not commit to a specific date for a report on the impact but acknowledged that time is of the essence with most virologists and infectious disease experts, including the White House’s own Dr. Anthony Fauci, anticipating a second wave this fall.

“These social distancing strategies we’ve learned are something we need to perfect, because we’re going to need them to be our major defense again in October, November and December,” Redfield said.

With the virus taking about two weeks to incubate before causing symptoms, the outcome of mass demonstrations in the nation’s capital and elsewhere will be revealed soon.

Tear gas floats in the air Monday as a line of police move demonstrators away from St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House, as they gather to protest the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In that same vein, Redfield was more tight-lipped during questions about the “riot-control agents” used Monday on Americans as they peacefully assembled outside of the White House.

The CDC had reported Wednesday that the agent was tear gas — a report that the White House vehemently denies — and Redfield agreed Thursday that tear gas effectively increases the spread of the virus because it often leads to coughing.

When asked whether he has advised President Donald Trump not to use tear gas because it could worsen the spread, however, the director’s response was more general.

“We have advocated strongly the ability to have face coverings and masks available to protesters, but you do raise an important question,” he told the committee, adding that he would pass their comments on the president during the next White House coronavirus task force meeting.

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