Washington — Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said Sunday the drop in new coronavirus infections across the nation is a "hopeful trend," and Americans can take the declines in new cases "to the bank" as they're being driven by growing vaccination rates and high levels of immunity among the U.S. population.
"Whereas the past trends when we saw cases start to decline, we were somewhat skeptical because we knew a lot of those declines were a result of behavioral changes, people pulling back more, taking more precautions. And then as soon as we sort of let our guard down, we saw cases surge again," Gottlieb said in an interview with "Face the Nation." "Right now, the declines that we're seeing, we can take to the bank."
Gottlieb, who led the FDA under the Trump administration, said cases and hospitalizations are declining nationwide, including in states like Michigan, which was battling a surge in infections.
"I think that these declines we're seeing are really locked in at this point," he said. "So I don't think we need to be as worried that as we take our foot off the brake, things are going to surge again."
There have been more than 31.7 million confirmed coronavirus cases, though the nation this week saw a 10% drop in average cases from the past week, federal health officials said Friday.
Gottlieb said the public should examine the outlook of the pandemic in the U.S. not solely based on daily new cases, but on the overall vulnerability of the population, which has "reduced substantially" because of vaccinations.
"A lot of older Americans and people who are most vulnerable to COVID, who are most likely to be hospitalized or succumb to the disease, have now been protected through vaccination and are going to be far less likely to have a bad outcome," he said. "So 10,000 cases right now is a lot different than 10,000 cases a year ago when the most vulnerable Americans had no protection from this disease."
Gottlieb predicted the country may not drop below 10,000 new cases daily this summer and said there could be sporadic infections, including outbreaks in summer camps.
"But we need to look at those cases differently," he said. "They're going to probably represent much less disease, much less death, because most of the most vulnerable Americans will have been protected through vaccination. So we need to look at these things differently."
Gottlieb said the rate of hospitalizations is a better measure of the impact of the coronavirus on the country.
With new infections declining, Gottlieb said officials should begin looking at ways to ease strict mitigation measures, including lifting outdoor mask ordinances and limits on outdoor gatherings.
"I think we need to lean more aggressively forward," he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 225 million coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered, and 53.1% of the U.S. adult population has received at least one shot. But the nation has reached a point where supply is outpacing demand.
Last week, President Biden announced a new tax credit for certain businesses that offer employees paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from side effects in an effort to incentivize working adults to get their shots.
Gottlieb said for a portion of the population, such as Americans who work all day and care for their families at night, getting a vaccine isn't convenient. To encourage those people to get their shots, he suggested creating 24/7 vaccination sites and ensure short wait times. He also said some Americans likely are not as anxious as others to get inoculated and said the vaccines need to be marketed aggressively to them.
"We will get more people vaccinated, but the rate of vaccination is going to slow," he said. "That's not a bad thing. We just need to recognize it."