Data shows failed U.S. coronavirus safety measures cost lives, says ex-Obama health advisor

The United States’ coronavirus response pales in comparison to other high-income nations, former Obama health advisor Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel argued Tuesday.

In an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Emanuel claimed tens of thousands of American lives could have been spared by a more cohesive national strategy.

Emanuel’s comments were based on his research published Monday on the JAMA Network website of the Journal of the American Medical Association. He analyzed per-capita mortality from the coronavirus across the U.S. and 18 other countries such as Australia, Germany and the U.K. The paper found that since May 10, America has had more deaths from Covid-19 per 100,000 people than any of the comparison countries.

The U.S. also has more coronavirus per-capita fatalities than the other 18 countries since June 7, according to Emanuel’s research. However, since the start of the pandemic, Belgium at 86.8, Spain at 65.0, and the U.K. at 62.6 have more deaths per 100,000 people than America at 60.3.

Emanuel, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, emphasized the findings that the U.S. mortality since May 10 has outpaced other countries. Since then, the country has done “extraordinarily bad even compared to places like Italy.”

That timeframe is particularly revealing since most countries were hit hard before then and “got their arms around how to manage this virus,” said Emanuel. It also adjusts for the fact European nations may started seeing considerable transmission of the virus a week or two before the U.S., he added.

Both Italy and the U.S. have similar per-capita deaths rates since the start of the pandemic, which the paper considers Feb. 13. Italy’s rate is 59.1. But since May 10, Italy has experienced 9.1 deaths from Covid-19 per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 36.9 in the U.S. Since June 7, Italy’s per-capita death rate fell to 3.1 while America’s was 27.2. The data used in Emanuel’s paper goes through Sept. 19.

“We had from May 10 to today roughly 90,000 more deaths than we should have had we followed Italy’s course — 90,000 Americans who died needlessly,” said Emanuel, who was a health policy advisor for the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.

“Italy didn’t have anything special or different in terms of treatment, vaccines, diagnostics compared to the United States,” he added. “What they had is better implementation of the public health measures, and that actually could have saved tens of thousands of lives in the United States.”

In particular, Emanuel lamented the lack of a coordinated national strategy in the U.S., saying there is a need for public health measures to be put in place “country-wide, with fidelity, and then slowly reopening.” He also said America struggled to build up a strong network to do contact tracing after a known infection, which could then be targeted to regions where the virus is spreading more rapidly.

“We know this virus breaks out in superspreading events. It’s not the usual person-to-person-to-person,” he said, referencing research from earlier this year that suggested 80% of new infections could come from about 10% of infected people.

“So you have to be able to identify them and quickly suppress that. We never built up that capacity,” added Emanuel. “The federal government, under [President Donald Trump], punted it to the states, and then states did very different things.”

White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews defended the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in a statement to CNBC, saying that like “all national emergencies, response is most successful when it is locally executed, state managed, and federally supported.”

“President Trump’s unprecedented and whole-of-America coronavirus response has saved countless lives and marshaled the power and might of the greatest mobilization since World War II — resulting in more than 100,000 ventilators procured, sourcing critical PPE for our frontline heroes, a robust testing regime resulting in more than double the number of tests than any other country in the world, and the fastest vaccine to ever go to trial,” she wrote. 

Emanuel’s comments come as some public health experts worry about rising coronavirus infections in the U.S. during the colder months of the fall and winter. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said on CNBC’s “The News with Shepard Smith” on Monday evening that the country is “facing a whole lot of trouble” ahead.

Other countries in Europe also are facing rises in cases of Covid-19 that have prompted tougher restrictions to curb the spread. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a tiered lockdown system for the U.K. on Monday. Last week, Paris temporarily shuttered its bars and gyms as infection rates spiked.

France, according to Emanuel’s research, has experienced 46.6 deaths per 100,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic. Since May 10, the figure falls to 7.5. It drops further to 3.2 deaths since June 7.

Emanuel emphasized that no country has responded perfectly to the pandemic, except “maybe Taiwan.” That country of almost 24 million people has 529 confirmed coronavirus cases and seven deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. has 7.8 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 215,089 deaths, the most of any country in the world, according to Johns Hopkins data.

“There’s a lot we could have done,” Emanuel said of the U.S. response. “The problems we’ve had here — the number of cases, the number of deaths, the number of hospitalizations — was not inevitable. It was a result of bad public health measures being implemented, or not implemented as the case may be.”

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