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Former Health Official: 'We Know How To Stop The Spread Of The Virus ... We Haven't Yet Shown The Will'

LAUREN GILGER: [As of Aug. 20], the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) has reported 723 new cases of COVID-19 in our state. That brings the statewide total to more than 196,000 confirmed cases since the pandemic began. DHS is also reporting another 50 deaths due to COVID-related illnesses [on Aug. 20] — 4,684 Arizonans have died since the beginning of the pandemic here.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: More than five and a half million cases of COVID-19 have been officially reported in the U.S. since the pandemic began. Some areas of the country, particularly the Northeast, have seen success in dramatically limiting the spread. But hot spots remain as masks and social distancing still are not being embraced by the high percentages of people that scientists and researchers would like to see. To get an update on trends and what could and should be next for fighting COVID, I'm joined by Andy Slavitt. He's the former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Also host of the "In the Bubble" podcast. Andy, where are you seeing true improvement? And what did you see in that that has you kind of in disbelief that we're still having some of the same challenges?

ANDY SLAVITT: You know, I think the whole country's been on a journey, a roller-coaster journey of, you know, kind of discovery in the first quarter of the year. Is this real? And in the second quarter, April, May, sort of dealing with the fact that people were dying in record numbers. Unfortunately, I think we will see a lot of effort in the summer where we could have been preparing for the fall and for school and learning the lessons that some of the early hot spots had learned. I don't think we did a great job of that. But it's hitting some communities, obviously, much harder than others. And I think the good news is if we want to, we know how to stop the spread of the virus. We absolutely know that it spreads through the respiratory tract. And if we don't breathe near one another, we won't spread the virus. That means masks, that means stay home, we change some of our habits. The bad news is we haven't yet shown the will or the willingness to do that. And I think if we are waiting for a vaccine or some scientific thing that's going to save us from doing that, I think that's a mistake, because vaccines will make incremental progress. They wont, they won't cure this right away.

GOLDSTEIN: So Arizona has been one of the hot spots that at least in terms of numbers, and this could be because of the amount of testing being done, but we've seen Arizona among the states that were very, very hot when it came to, to COVID. We've seen the numbers come down dramatically from days where we're having three to 4,000 cases reported to now below 1,000. When you see that, do you say, "All right. Well, some of the closings that Arizona did, maybe people are social distancing, wearing masks, but also maybe there's not enough testing being done." How are you balancing that out with what you see in Arizona?

SLAVITT: I think it's probably some of all. Look, we have to remember that the virus comes to where it hasn't been before and spreads in places where people congregate indoors. So you're a southern state and you, and it's been hot and it's hard to be outside in large parts of Arizona. It was a natural home, as was, it was in Houston, in Charlotte and Miami and Los Angeles. And so to some degree, that's a big factor that now obviously people adjust. The real question from here is whether or not you'll have a steep drop off like we did in New York, which is the best case, or whether it will be a kind of slow, steady flat decline that doesn't quite get back down to normal and where you still have the worry of community spread. You have to make some choices. I mean, New York made some tough choices in order to do this, but they went down as fast as they went up, and they've stayed down. Because once you're down, if you're careful, you get cases in the dribs and drabs instead of this sort of unchecked community spread. So I hope that Arizona takes that lesson that it didn't take on the way up and takes the lesson on the way down.

GOLDSTEIN: Andy, you had a  long list of tweets related to Vice President Biden and what suggestions, recommendations that you'd like to see him take if he wins in November and then takes office in January. You're writing this as if you were Vice President Biden and things that he would say in a statement or in a speech. One of them is that, "I will take the politics out of the pandemic response as it should have been done before. I'll have a bipartisan scientific advisory and communication panel." Can the politics to some extent be taken out of this with new leadership?

SLAVITT: I think it will make a big difference. I think the, you know, the notion that we used to have is that we fight wars unified. You know, we get attacked at 9/11, we're unified. And being attacked by an invisible virus is something that we very well could have been unified around. But I think about the choices that President Trump didn't make. If you reimagine a world where President Trump said this is gonna be challenging, I know not all of you love me, but we're going to get through this together. And I think he would have had the support of the country. Joe Biden, I think, is running as a unifier, not a divider. And I also know that even, I think I said in that piece, small cracks during a pandemic become huge problems. And he's aware of that because he went through you let us through the Ebola crisis. So I think he's going to make every effort to do that. Will 100% of the people in the country salute and be on board? Of course not. But the truth is, you don't need 100%, but you do need a lot more than what we have now.

GOLDSTEIN: So based on where we're at right now in the middle of August, do you get the impression that people are burned out by this yet? Do you think that people are, as a general rule, ready to keep fighting? And if there isn't a vaccine in the next six months, people won't just throw up their hands and they want to say, "Well, well, I want to go to a football game. I want to go to a movie. I'm going to sit at a bar and sit as close to anybody as I want." Or do you think we're moving to a point where a great majority of the country is realizing masks make sense. Social distancing makes sense. These are minor sacrifices, considering.

SLAVITT: I think people are burned out. But I think you have to ask what would cause people to feel reenergized and refocused. And I think it's a plan, feeling like there's a light at the end of the tunnel, that there's leadership. People don't mind making sacrifices. In fact, people are more than willing to make sacrifices if they feel like their sacrifice is not going to be squandered. So to stay home for four weeks, to go without income, to not send your kids to school and not feel like the government's working on solving the problem — that's not going to keep people in that frame for very long. But a plan which says while you're at home or while you're wearing a mask, we have scientists that are working on vaccines. We have frontline medical workers that are improving care. We have death rates that are dropping dramatically. And we are working on testing plans and protocols to allow all these things to open again safely. Then I think people will, will be reenergized for what's been a very, very rough road. My grandparents passed away a long time ago, but if I were facing my grandparents today who lived through, who came to this country through Ellis Island, who lived through the Great Depression here and through World Wars, and I told them that we were having difficulty managing four to five weeks of sacrifice to save tens of thousands of lives. I'd be embarrassed to do that.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Andy Slavitt, his former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He's also host of the podcast "In the Bubble." Andy, thank you for taking the time today. Take care.

SLAVITT: Great to talk to you. Steve.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.