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Social Distancing, Masks Key As States Loosen Restrictions, Researcher Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump's projection for the number of people in the United States who will die from COVID-19 is going up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to lose anywhere from 75,000, 80,000 to 100,000 people. That's a horrible thing. We shouldn't lose one person over this.

GREENE: The president made that prediction during a Fox News Town Hall last night. Now, we should say this is still on the low end of what the White House Coronavirus Task Force is estimating. They're saying this disease could kill between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Despite that, more and more states are easing restrictions and moving to reopen their economies, and we're seeing data showing that more and more people are going outside. I spoke about this with Crystal Watson. She's a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and she's worried about these trends.

CRYSTAL WATSON: That's pretty concerning. I understand the desire to get out, especially in this nice weather in most of the country. But I don't think we're really ready to loosen these restrictions. And it's unfortunate that that's happening at this time.

GREENE: We saw, I mean, some photos over the weekend. I mean, there were some beaches in California. There was Washington, D.C., on the Mall. There were places like even New York City, which has been hit so hard, people gathering. I mean, what is your message to those individuals if they decide they're going to go outside?

WATSON: My message would be that social distancing is still the key right now. Even if you're outside, you need to maintain that distance of over 6 feet. You need to wear a mask, as being recommended by the CDC. And try to avoid people as much as possible because this hasn't gone away. It will ramp up again as we start to come together.

GREENE: And ramp up again - I mean, where might we see that happening? I mean, how will we know that that is taking place?

WATSON: Well, I think we will start to see hospitalizations begin to go up again. There's a bit of a lag as people get infected and they have an incubation period. So we may not see it right away, but we will start to see more cases in hospitals and more very sick people.

GREENE: Are you confident that there's the amount of testing in place that's needed, the amount of contact tracing in place to move into another phase here?

WATSON: No. You know, I don't think that there is anywhere in the country right now that truly has the capacities in place to test everyone we need to test and to trace all of their contacts. There are states that are doing better, and my state of Maryland is really ramping up testing because they've acquired additional tests. But I don't think anyone's quite there yet. And those capacities are really, really critical to manage this on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, I fear that we will see big epidemics of this virus again. And it may cause us to have to go back under social distancing measures.

GREENE: Let me ask you this - do you have any advice, in general, for leaders in cities, in states as they weigh what to do here and how to go forward?

WATSON: Yeah, I think the focus really should be on creating these capacities both to test and to trace contacts because that's how we manage this on a case-by-case level. And it will make it much safer going forward. It's also a more sustainable approach because we're going to need to practice these measures until we hopefully have a safe and effective vaccine. And - so if we are really able to control the virus and find nearly every case, we can prevent a lot of illnesses and deaths and prevent us from having to go back under social distancing measures.

GREENE: I just think if we step back, I think, to when this all began - and for those of us who aren't in your line of work, it was unimaginable that this could get as bad as what you and others were saying. Now that we are here in the midst of this, I mean, is this basically what you expected, or have there been things that have surprised you and lessons you've learned?

WATSON: Yeah, I've been surprised at the willingness of our entire population to social distance. I think it's really encouraging that most people are on board with this approach. I - it really is one of the only tools we have to control a virus where it's novel and we don't have a vaccine yet. So that's been surprising. I'm also surprised that - we really haven't done this type of social - or this type of contact tracing before on this scale. And it's taken kind of a change of mindset for people to be willing to do this, so that has surprised me a little bit as well. But I do think it's possible to make it a reality if we really put the time and resources that are needed to control the virus.

GREENE: Crystal Watson is a researcher and senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Thanks so much for your time.

WATSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.