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As States Loosen Pandemic Restrictions, Dr. Leana Wen Warns “We Are Not Ready for a Safe Reopening”

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As more than 40 states begin to reopen, President Trump is downplaying the need for mass COVID-19 testing, even as he himself is now being tested every day for the virus. We speak with emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen, who says, “Widespread testing is so critical. … Why shouldn’t this testing be available to all Americans?”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As more than 40 states begin to reopen their economies, many continue to face a severe shortage of tests. Meanwhile, President Trump gets tested every day at the White House, yet downplays the importance of tests for the rest of the country.

We’re joined now by Dr. Leana Wen. She’s an emergency room physician, public health professor at George Washington University, previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. Her recent piece in The Washington Post is headlined “As states reopen, here’s how you protect yourself from the coming surge.”

Dr. Wen, it’s great to have you back with us. I want to talk about — oh, and congratulations on giving birth. You just gave birth. But I want to ask you first about this issue. President Trump’s valet just tested positive for COVID. He apparently went ballistic, you know, yelling at his staff about him not being protected. A lot of people in this country feel that way. And the solution has been he’s being tested every day at the White House. Yet most people in this country have nothing like that access, not even to the first test. Can you talk about why testing is so important, especially as the country reopens?

DR. LEANA WEN: Well, first of all, I wish that the valet recovers and is in good health. As a physician, that’s always my first concern, is about the health of people who are ill.

You’re right, Amy. I mean, widespread testing is so critical. You need to have widespread testing, because that is what we need in order to find out if somebody who has symptoms actually has COVID-19. And we also have to know, not only for those who have symptoms, but also for asymptomatic people, because we know that there is a high rate of transmission among people who do not have any symptoms at all.

We need that testing for the clinical reason of helping to guide clinical decisions and also to guide public health decisions, to understand what is the true rate of COVID-19 in communities. Estimates are that we need millions of tests, on the orders of 5 million to even 20 million tests a day, to be performed in order to help the country get back to normal and get back to reopening.

That’s actually why I’m so concerned about reopening now, because we don’t have nearly the capacity to do all of these tests. And you can see, I think, through the president’s own example, of why that testing is so important. It provides reassurance to the president. Why shouldn’t this testing be available to all Americans to give everyone the reassurance that we need to safely return to work and to school?

AMY GOODMAN: So, you wrote this piece, “7 things the administration is getting wrong about testing.” His new — the White House press secretary, Trump continually saying, “What? Do you want us to test everyone every hour of every day? This is ridiculous.” Then we immediately hear that President Trump, Vice President Pence are being treated — are being tested every day. What are these seven things?

DR. LEANA WEN: Yeah. So, I’ve been listening, I think, as a lot of people have, to the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings. Now I don’t know how often they’ll occur, but I was listening to them frequently. And during every briefing, it was always mentioned that governors, doctors, hospitals are bringing up the issue of insufficient tests. And then, one after the other, we would hear the administration give these justifications for why we don’t need more tests. They’ll say, “Well, we don’t have the perfect test. We need better testing.” Well, perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. No test is perfect. We just need these tests to be out there.

Another justification is, “Well, we just can’t get enough tests.” Well, that’s what the federal government is for. We, as America, we do not say, “We can’t get it done.” Actually, we should be doing this backwards and saying, “What do we need in order to reopen this country safely?” And if it requires 5 million, 20 million tests a day, then the next question should be: What can we do as a country to get there? What is the national effort, directed by the federal government, that’s needed in order for us to get there? It cannot simply be one reason after another.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, wouldn’t this be the invoking of the [Defense] Production Act? I mean, President Trump just went to Arizona to a Honeywell plant that’s now making masks. Of course, he went unmasked in the plant, despite the fact that there were signs saying you should wear a mask. And interestingly, the music that was playing over him was “Live and Let Die.” But if you can talk about what that would mean, just gearing up plants to not only make masks, but make tests?

DR. LEANA WEN: Yes. And not only masks and tests, but really the entire gamut of what we’re going to be needing in this pandemic. This is not a one-time effort. We’re not looking at something that’s done in the next month. We’re looking at many months, many years of needing many more supplies.

I mean, unfortunately, we have left our healthcare workers without the proper protection. It’s a travesty that we have let healthcare workers go without masks and gowns and other things that they need to protect themselves, when we could see that shortage coming. We should also never leave our patients in a position where they might have to fight for a ventilator, where healthcare workers have to decide who gets that last ventilator. We know that that is an issue that we could be facing.

And then there are issues later on down the line, too. We always talk about a vaccine as the solution. Well, vaccines are not the solution. Vaccinations are. What happens if we don’t have enough syringes or vials or rubber stoppers? I mean, that’s what I fear. If we cannot even get enough tests and swabs, what’s going to happen when we look down the line to see what do we need to produce millions, maybe billions, of doses of vaccines in large numbers? We should be anticipating these needs now, not waiting until it’s too late.

And that is the role the federal government — you’re right — to kick in the Defense Production Act, but actually to act like a federal government should in coordinating these national efforts, instead of letting individual states and hospitals and doctors to fend for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have this situation, Dr. Wen. The White House is ending its daily medical briefings. It’s rejecting the CDC guidelines as the country is reopening. It’s a 17-page memo that says what states should do if they’re going to reopen. And they have forbidden the top doc on the Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Fauci, from testifying before the House. The CDC issue of not allowing this report to see the light of day, talk about the significance of this.

DR. LEANA WEN: I wish that we had briefings every single day by our medical experts in the federal government, who are some of the best doctors and scientists in the world. I mean, the rest of the world looks to these leaders to give sound public health guidance. I know that I do as a clinician, and clinicians all around the country do.

As a former local public health official, I also depended on the CDC to put out guidance that would help me, in my jurisdiction, to assist restaurants and schools. And, I mean, there’s so much that’s happening around COVID-19, we need this expert body to synthesize all the research that’s out there to help us with practical guidance for how to do things safely, to reduce risk for everyone.

And frankly, the American people need that information, as well. So I wish that there were these daily briefings done by these expert doctors and scientists, where they talked about the state of COVID-19, what’s happening around the country, what’s the latest research, how can businesses stay safe, how can individuals reduce our risk. That’s what I would be turning to the CDC for. And when we ignore science, we pay a price. And unfortunately, in this case, the price is going to be lives.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of masks, the importance of them. I want to go to this moment — I’m just going to just play the first seconds of it — President Trump was quite surprised by, this testy exchange during an Oval Office meeting with medical workers, marking National Nurses Day. Sophia Adams, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, told President Trump she’d been forced to use a single N95 mask for weeks due to a shortage of personal protective equipment at her New Orleans hospital.

SOPHIA ADAMS: So, PPE has been sporadic, but it’s been manageable. And we do what we have to do. We’re nurses, and we learn to adapt and do whatever – the best thing that we can do for our patients to get the job done and get the care provided.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other people.

SOPHIA ADAMS: Oh, no. I agree, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because I’ve heard the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there’s President Trump saying he heard the opposite, as scores of nurses and doctors have died during this pandemic. But I also wanted to go to, Dr. Wen, people wearing masks and children. You have a toddler, a 2-and-a-half-year-old, and you have your newborn. And you just participated in a children’s teach-in on CNN with Sesame Street. If you could talk about children? Should children wear masks outside? And what should parents tell their children about who they’re protecting when they wear those masks?

DR. LEANA WEN: That’s an important point about why it is that we’re wearing masks. And look, the guidance around masks has changed since the beginning of this pandemic, which is normal, because as you find out more information about a new virus, the guidance should be changing. Initially we were saying no masks, and now we’re saying wear a mask. And the reason is that we wear a mask not to protect ourselves from other people, but to protect others from us, in case we are carriers of COVID-19 and just don’t realize it. And so it is actually a courtesy to everyone else that we’re wearing a mask. And therefore, if we all wear masks, then we’ll all be protecting each other, and we’re in this together. That’s what we need to tell our kids.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Wen, I’m going very quickly because we have so much to cover with you. One is Kawasaki disease, what we are now learning children are facing during this pandemic?

DR. LEANA WEN: Children still are less likely to have severe illness than adults. But we are finding, in both children and adults, that there are these unexpected symptoms. This is a respiratory disease, but it also seems to be causing problems, inflammations of our blood vessels, or clots in our blood vessels. And so that’s what we’re seeing in children and also even in young, healthy adults. We’re seeing young, healthy adults be afflicted with strokes, that might leave them debilitated for life, because of COVID-19. And so, this is really a serious disease that we need to be protecting ourselves against.

And I just want to say, even as states are reopening, that does not mean that you should loosen your own social distancing restrictions. Stay home if you can, because social distancing is a privilege that not everyone has.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, if you could talk about giving birth in the time of the pandemic? We spoke to you just days before, maybe it was a week before, you gave birth. It was astounding to see you on the networks. I mean, when was the last time you went on TV right before you gave birth? And then when did you go back on? What? The day after?

DR. LEANA WEN: Not the day after, but a few days after. I mean, we are all doing our part. And this is what I could do, to help provide information during this pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, tell us what it was like to go to the hospital during this pandemic to have your infant.

DR. LEANA WEN: Very different from the last time that I gave birth in the same hospital two-and-a-half years ago. I mean, the guidelines were constantly changing, and so I wasn’t even sure that I could bring my husband with me during labor and delivery. I could, at the end. But it still just means that this is a time of uncertainty. And healthcare continues to happen.

So, I would advise for everyone, no matter if you’re a pregnant person or if you have any other medical condition, to have a list of your medications, your medical conditions, your emergency contacts with you at all times, because you may not be able to have your advocate with you if you need to go into the hospital. Make plans, but also know that the plans could be changing, as this is a time of uncertainty. And I think it’s also a time that we have to grant each other a lot of grace, as we’re all going through this period together.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dr. Wen, your words of advice as the country opens, what you think is the most important thing for people to do?

DR. LEANA WEN: Frankly, we are not ready for a safe reopening. We have not met the White House’s own criteria. None of the states that are reopening have met the White House’s own criteria.

So, reduce your own risk. Wash your hands. Stay social distancing as much as you can. If you have to go back to work, ask your employer about what their protocols are to keep you safe. Also, do your part to reduce the risk for others. Do not plan gatherings. This is not the time to plan play dates and dinner parties. It is not safe to do that. And so, reduce your risk, and know that in keeping yourself safe, you’re also reducing the risk for others around you, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Leana —

DR. LEANA WEN: Stay away from people.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

DR. LEANA WEN: Just stay safe and stay well. Know that we can all do our part.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much, Dr. Leana Wen, emergency room physician, public health professor at George Washington University, former Baltimore health commissioner. We’ll link to her Washington Post pieces. The latest, “As states reopen, here’s how you protect yourself from the coming surge.”

As we wrap up this show, I wanted to send good wishes out to a woman who’s changed everything. A very happy, meaningful, landmark birthday to Naomi Klein. Happy Birthday, Naomi!

Democracy Now! is working with as few people as possible on site. The majority of our amazing team is working from home. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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