A coalition of health professionals is urging the nation's leaders to step back from the push to reopen the economy and shut down nonessential businesses to prevent the loss of more lives from the spiraling pandemic.
In an open letter to "decision makers," a group of doctors, scientists, teachers and nurses says leaders need to "shut it down, start over" and "do it right." The letter, which has been signed by more than 1,000 health professionals, says that means more testing and contact tracing, mandatory masks in all situations, more personal protective equipment and a ban on interstate travel.
The consequences of opening too soon
"Our core argument is that, unfortunately, the first time we did this, we didn't do it right," Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease physician who signed the letter, said in an interview with NPR on Wednesday.
That failure, she said, has brought the nation to where it is today with cases rising in 42 places and a death toll that crossed the grim milestone of 150,000 on Wednesday.
The rising caseloads are hampering efforts to do more testing and contact tracing and causing growing trouble for hospitals in small cities — facilities that are often the least equipped to handle the pandemic.
A bigger federal role
"Ideally, this would be coming from some sort of federal universal plan," she said.
That could be a tall order, given that Republicans and Democrats are still struggling to reach agreement on the newest pandemic relief bill.
"Changing the narrative"
"Many of the actions of our government thus far have fallen short of what the moment demands," according to the text of the letter.
Take face masks. Public health professionals encourage their use as an effective measure to slow the spread of infection. But face coverings have often been dubbed a partisan — or at least divisive — issue. While a growing number of states now mandate masks in public, many have resisted calls for such orders. In states such as Georgia, that has fueled tensions between mayors who want mask mandates and governors who don't.
To overcome these challenges, Kuppalli said it's important to better communicate the gravity of public safety measures like wearing masks. "We do need to work really hard in changing the narrative when it comes to these things," she said.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We are almost at another grim milestone here in the U.S. - 150,000 dead in this pandemic. And now a group of doctors, scientists, teachers and nurses have published an open letter. It's addressed to America's decision-makers. The message - shut it down, start over, do it right. Dr. Krutika Kuppalli signed on to the letter. She's an infectious disease physician, and she joins us from California. Dr. Kuppalli, thanks for being here.
KRUTIKA KUPPALLI: Yeah, thanks for having me.
GREENE: So you all are calling for a nationwide shutdown again - nonessential businesses closed, restaurants doing only takeout, leave your home just to get food, medicine, fresh air. What is your core argument here?
KUPPALLI: Our core argument is that, unfortunately, the first time we did this, we didn't do it right. So with cases soaring again in the United States, record numbers of deaths going back up, we really need to consider shutting things down again and using this time to get things right again so we can do a reset this time. So we need to get testing right. We need to get contact tracing up and going. We need to get isolation and quarantine going so we can get things right for our country.
GREENE: Are you convinced that this has to happen everywhere? Because, I mean, communities are so different, and there are some that are doing much better than others and not showing a spike in infections.
KUPPALLI: Yeah, that is a great point. No, we don't need to do this everywhere. We need to do this in places where things are not looking good. So, for example, I'm here in California, and our percent positivity is about 7.5% for the last 14 days, and cases continue to go up. So in California, it would be a great idea to consider this.
And in other places like Texas and Arizona and Florida and other parts of the South, where we are seeing cases go up and deaths go up and hospitals at capacity and health care systems at capacity, we need to consider doing this because we know that this is going to continue to increase, and we need to try and preserve our health care systems, other to - than continue to put pressure on them so that things don't continue to get worse. We need to try and break these chains of transmission.
GREENE: Who will even regulate that, though? I mean, if you're talking about setting some kind of threshold to say that if you reach this mark, statistically, you have to shut down, I mean, I presume someone at the federal level would have to tell different communities if and when they have to do this, and isn't that part of the problem that we have seen? You have governors, you have local leaders, and it's really been on them to make these decisions. So how would you change that?
KUPPALLI: Yeah. So, ideally, this would be coming from some sort of federal universal plan. We have not had that. So we need to put this, at this point, on the decision-making of our local and state governments. The states are going to have to make these decisions to do these things. They need to do these to look out for the well-being of their public and try to get things reset for their own societies because we're not getting that leadership and that guidance from the national government.
You know, we are imploring in our letter to please ask the U.S. government to make these bold decisions that we need to make, to please step up and make them. We need to do this because the well-being of our public depends on it.
GREENE: Isn't there - beyond convincing leaders, isn't there an issue of mentality? I mean, just the issue of face masks, for example - aren't people so entrenched already when it comes to their views on that that it might be really tough to change their minds?
KUPPALLI: Yeah, we do need to try and work on education and engagement and communication when it comes to these types of things. I think that we do need to work really hard in changing the narrative when it comes to these things. We know nonpharmaceutical interventions work. So things like physical distancing and wearing face masks - those things are very important. And so people - trying to get people to understand that if we take these things up, it'll be very important.
GREENE: Dr. Kuppalli, thanks so much.
KUPPALLI: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.