Washington — Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb predicted Sunday the South will experience an "extended plateau" of coronavirus cases as states there, many of which were among the earliest to ease restrictions on activities, work to mitigate a spike in new infections.
"I think in the South you're likely to see an extended plateau. We really don't have a national approach here. What we have is state approaches that are creating regional effects, and so those regional effects are different," Gottlieb said on "Face the Nation." "The New York experience mirrored Italy. I think the Southern experience is more likely to mirror Brazil, where you're likely to see more of an extended plateau once we reach that apex, and you could reach the apex in the next two or three weeks."
States across the Sun Belt and the West are reporting surges in coronavirus cases, and seven set single-day death records. Florida on Sunday reported 15,299 cases in 24 hours, setting the record for new cases in a single state since the start of the pandemic. Many of the states now experiencing upticks in infections were among the first to allow businesses to reopen and lift restrictions on residents.
Gottlieb said he believes governors of states in the South and the West "felt they were out of the woods" after the first wave of infections, but said the epidemic in the U.S. "has really been a regional experience," with states like New York reporting spikes in coronavirus cases before others that are now seeing infections rise.
Those governors in the South and West, he said, reopened their economies "against the backdrop of what was a lot of spread," and did so too early.
"They hadn't really crushed the virus in those states," Gottlieb said, "and people became complacent, especially younger people. They were going out, not taking precautions."
Gottlieb predicted that "things are going to get worse before they get better," and noted that private modeling shows a peak in coronavirus cases coming in the next two to three weeks.
The surge of cases in more than 36 states comes as the White House is pressuring school districts nationwide to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, and President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened to pull federal funding from those that do not.
Some schools are adopting hybrid models that include in-person and online learning, but local officials are still concerned that sending 56 million grade-school students back to school could lead to more infections.
Gottlieb suggested schools consider retrofitting their air conditioning systems to protect against the spread of the coronavirus and said it's crucial for measures to be taken to ensure the coronavirus "doesn't become epidemic in children in the same way" the flu does.
"What we've learned from this virus is it has surprised us. We've both underestimated and overestimated it at the same time, so we need to be prudent," he said. "I think it's important to give discretion to local districts to take steps to try to de-densify schools and protect kids so we don't have outbreaks."
Gottlieb said elected officials across all levels of government should be working to reopen schools to children, but said "districts need discretion to try to put in place measures to keep kids safe."