Washington — With the number of coronavirus cases rising from coast to coast and hospitalizations increasing in more than three dozen states, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, warned the nation is "at a dangerous tipping point" with infections expected to continue growing.
In an interview with "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Gottlieb was pressed about the trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic as the nation braces for the winter months.
"We're at a dangerous tipping point right now," Gottlieb said. "We're entering what's going to be the steep slope of the curve, of the epidemic curve. We know what that looks like from the spring, we know what it looks like from this summer. These cases are going to continue to build. There's really no backstop here."
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. has surpassed 8.5 million, and the death toll is approaching 225,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. With states experiencing an uptick in new infections, Gottlieb said the federal government has the chance to implement mitigation measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but he doesn't "see forceful policy intervention happening any time soon."
"We have a moment of opportunity right now to take some forceful steps to try to abate the spread that's underway," he said. "But if we don't do that, if we miss this window, this is going to continue to accelerate and it's going to be more difficult to get under control."
In an interview with CNN on Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said "we're not going to control the pandemic," while national security adviser Robert O'Brien told "Face the Nation" the only thing that will stop the coronavirus is a vaccine.
Gottlieb said the message from the White House appears to be for Americans to buckle up for difficult winter months until a vaccine is approved and distributed, but said he doesn't believe that is the approach the Trump administration should be taking.
"Masks are one thing that we could be doing. We need to look at targeted mitigation, starting to close congregate settings where we know spread is happening," he said. "This vaccine is not going to affect the contours of what we're going to go through, which is going to play out in the next two or three months right now."
As the White House continues to push development of a vaccine as a priority for defeating the coronavirus, five people close to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive for COVID-19, including his chief of staff Marc Short and political adviser Marty Obst. While Pence was in close contact with Short last week, he is maintaining his travel schedule as the presidential race enters the final stretch. Pence and second lady Karen Pence tested negative for COVID-19 on Sunday, his office said.
Gottlieb said the vice president is putting others at risk by continuing to campaign despite the diagnoses, but noted Pence can be closely monitored.
"I would understand why they wouldn't want to quarantine the vice president, but they need to be very explicit about what they're doing, and the risks that they're taking," he said. "He should be wearing a high quality mask, an N95 mask at all times. He should be distancing wherever possible. They should be serially testing him."
Gottlieb said there are ways to "try to provide" a measure of protection around Pence and protect others, but said the White House should be "very explicit about the risk that they're taking."
"I think everyone right now in the White House should be wearing a mask," he said. "They have an obligation to protect the vice president, the president, and not introduce a virus into that setting."
President Trump tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month and spent three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for the virus.