US needs more coronavirus testing, contact tracing

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The U.S. may have flattened the curve of coronavirus cases through shelter-in-place orders, but the country’s public health response still must improve to limit future spread of the disease, according to Dr. Craig Spencer of New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

“The problem is that right now, as soon as we reopen, we don’t have what we need in place to be able to do what needs to be done well, the good bread-and-butter public health: testing, contact tracing, isolating,” Spencer said Tuesday on CNBC’s “Closing Bell.” 

Spencer, who is the hospital system’s director of global health in emergency medicine, said those practices are necessary not just for the next few weeks, but months and possibly years, “to make sure we don’t continue to have constant interruptions from this virus.” 

Many states across the U.S. are starting to relax lockdown orders and business restrictions put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19. Spencer said those policies were intended to prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed, which has largely happened. 

“We did the first part, to flatten the curve. A lot of people stayed home to stop the transmission and the virus’ spread,” said Spencer, who survived Ebola in 2014 after contracting it while working in Guinea with Doctors Without Borders.

But he said people were also asked to stay home to create time to build out the total public health response. The U.S. has in recent weeks continued to expand its testing capacity, and progress is being made by cities and states to establish contact tracing programs. Still, more work must be done, Spencer said. 

There are more than 1.3 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University. At least 81,805 people have died. 

Spencer’s comments Tuesday came as White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed a Senate committee and warned of pulling back on mitigation efforts too soon. The White House has put forward a plan for states to gradually reopen local businesses as cases and hospitalizations decline and testing increases, among other “checkpoints.” 

“What I’ve expressed then and again is my concern that if some areas, cities, states, what have you, jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” Fauci testified. 

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