"What's different now is the rate of change and the slope," Adm. Brett P. Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), said in an exclusive interview. "The rate of the rise in cases is much more dramatic. It's coming on us more quickly and more rapidly."
The numbers back up the assessment:
- The US had its highest day of new cases -- 217,664 -- and deaths -- 2,879 -- on Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
- There was a record-setting, 100,667 hospitalizations, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
- The US has been adding 1 million new cases every six days for three weeks.
- COVID-19 was the leading cause of death this week, with 11,820, an average of 1,660 a day, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
- IHME projects 262,000 more people will die over the next four months and daily deaths will peak at more than 2,900 in mid-January.
The Admiral, who has unofficially been dubbed the "Testing Czar", has been key in guiding states to effectively utilize federal resources to boost testing in all communities. According to Giroir, the U.S. made more than 125 million tests available in November alone.
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"We want the perfect testing system and that is we want highly specific, highly sensitive, very inexpensive tests that can be used by anyone at any time," he said. "I think it's realistic by the mid-spring that we'll have 200 million point of care tests. Right now we have 50-60 million. And remember we're going to have that at a time when God-willing the disease will be coming down."
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The vast majority of officials and the medical community agree the disease can only come down once vaccines are widely distributed enough to achieve a certain herd immunity, which Giroir estimates is 70 percent to 80 percent of the population. Herd immunity, of course, can also be achieved if a certain percentage of the population gets infected with the virus - but that could prove deadly.
"If we have herd immunity by everyone getting the virus, we're going to have millions of people die. So we're trying to keep that rate low. Everybody get the vaccine, everybody get immune and we'll be in good shape," he said.
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While the FDA could soon give manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna Emergency Use Authorization for their vaccine candidates, that is far from a guarantee to win over a skeptical public.
"I want people to understand these are modern vaccines," Adm. Giroir said. "Not that the old vaccines were dirty or bad, but these are sophisticated vaccines, and with Moderna and Pfizer, the vaccines don't have killed virus. It's a specific genetic marker that creates a specific protein that stops the virus in its tracks. That's why it's so safe and so effective."
The skepticism, however, appears to move beyond just those nervous about a vaccine.
"I am continually surprised by the number of people who slam me on Twitter for 'propagating lies' and the 'fake pandemic.' The fact is we've had a quarter million Americans die of this and we're losing 2-3 thousand Americans a day. This is as real as it gets."