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As U.S. Nears 100,000 COVID-19 Deaths, Where Is The Country Headed?


The death toll from COVID-19 is going to hit 100,000 in the United States any day now. It could even happen as early as today. We certainly didn't know we would hit that number for sure, but it is now the reality that is framing the pandemic in this country. And however tragic this milestone is, it doesn't mark the end. How many more people could die by the end of the summer and beyond?

Dr. Ashish Jha is with us now. He is director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and he has been among the experts closely analyzing the data through this pandemic. Dr. Jha, thanks for taking the time for us.

ASHISH JHA: Thanks for having me on, David.

GREENE: I know we've been talking to you at different moments through this pandemic as you study models. As you look at this number looming now in our near future, what are you reflecting on?

JHA: Well, a couple of things, David. I mean, first of all, it is a solemn moment to reflect on the idea that about 100,000 Americans have died mostly just in the last two months. I mean, so the speed with which this has happened I think is really devastating. Of course, we've had very little opportunity to mourn all those losses because most of us have been shut down. And I've been thinking about where we go into the future and fall and reminding myself and others that we're early in this outbreak; we're not anywhere near done.

GREENE: I mean, the U.S., as you say, we're not even near done, but we've hit this 100,000 mark or almost have - more deaths than any country in the world. Do you think the country's absorbing the significance of these numbers?

JHA: You know, I think for a majority of Americans, this doesn't quite feel real because the deaths have been concentrated in few places. Obviously, New York has been hit very hard, some other places out west, Seattle, Chicago, some of the big cities. And so people who don't live in those areas may not be absorbing it.

But, you know, the nature of this pandemic is that it starts and kind of accelerates in big cities, but then it moves out into the suburbs and into the rural areas. And so by the time we're done with this, I think every American will have felt it much more up close and personal. And that's what I worry about - is that it shouldn't have to take that for people to really understand how tragic this is and how calamitous, in many ways, this is.

GREENE: Well, I mean, so we're coming out of Memorial Day weekend, and we saw, you know, a lot of regulations relaxed in many parts of the country. I mean, as you are watching that, as you're studying different models, what are you predicting as of now in terms of what we could see for the - you know, by the end of summer?

JHA: Yes, if you look at all of the models out there - and most models have been relatively accurate. A few of them have been too optimistic. But then if you sort of look at the models of models, the ones that really sort of combine it all and put it together and make projections, you know, the projections are that we're probably going to see between another 70 and 100,000 deaths between now and then the end of the summer.

So what has, you know, been an awful few months, unfortunately - while the pace will slow down because we're - we are doing some amount of social distancing and testing is ramping up, we're going to unfortunately see a lot more sickness and, unfortunately, a lot more deaths in the upcoming months.

GREENE: Well, and there's been talk of a seasonal aspect to this. I mean, whatever happens over the summer, do we face even more deaths as we head later in the year?

JHA: Yeah, so I'm hoping that the models of the summer of an additional, let's say, 70 to 100,000 deaths are too pessimistic. And they may be because we may get a seasonal benefit because of the summer; people are outside more. But the flip side of the seasonal benefit of the summer is what will almost surely be a pretty tough fall and winter, with a surge of cases, a wave that might be bigger than the wave we just went through. And we've got to prepare for that because we can't be caught flat-footed the way we were this time around.

GREENE: What can we do to prepare? I mean, we're looking at so many states relax their restrictions right now. Is it a matter of putting those restrictions potentially back in place where they need to be, or are there other things that we can be doing?

JHA: So there are two things that I would say. First of all, I mean, I - people can't be locked down for the, you know, rest of this pandemic. So I understand that people need to get out, and being outside is a good thing. But we have to maintain a certain amount of social distancing. I think mask-wearing is really important.

And then the only other tool we have in our toolbox is a really robust testing, tracing, isolation program. You know, if you think about how it is that South Korea and Germany have been able to do much, much better, they have had a really aggressive testing, tracing, isolation program. We know that works. It allows us to kind of have more of our lives back without the number of deaths that we've suffered. So I really think that still remains and should remain one of our top priority areas.

GREENE: Well, the federal government's new strategic testing plan is calling on states to take a lot of the responsibility for testing. I mean, I suppose the argument is that states know best for their areas of the country what is needed and how to carry this out. Do you see that as the best approach, to leave much of this to states?

JHA: You know, I think this is a real missed opportunity and very unfortunate in many ways because while states have a critical role to play, testing capacity and testing supply chains are national and international. We don't want 50 states competing. We want a federal strategy that helps states, and I'm worried that we're just not getting that from the federal government.

GREENE: Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. He has helped us try and understand different moments throughout this pandemic. We really appreciate it, doctor.

JHA: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.