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NIH Director Says 'Drastic' Measures Like California Lockdown Are Needed to Stop Coronavirus Spread

"If we did everything right today...what we might be able to do is change what's going to happen three or four weeks from now. That's our challenge."

A supportive sign is posted on a theater's marquis in the North Beach area of San Francisco, California on March 17, 2020. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the top public health officials in the U.S. suggested that California Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to order a lockdown of his entire state starting Thursday evening could put California ahead of the curve in stopping the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, which has sickened more than 14,000 people in the U.S. so far and killed more than 200.

Measures that will ultimately be most effective at slowing the transmission rate will likely be seen as "too drastic" by many Americans, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said Thursday—but, he said, they should be done to save lives.

"This is not a permanent state, this is a moment in time. We will look back at these decisions as pivotal."
—Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.)

Collins's comments came as Newsom ordered all 40 million Californians to stay at home except for essential purposes "until further notice." Residents will be permitted to leave home only to buy groceries, go to pharmacies and healthcare appointments, and commute to jobs classified as essential.

The order came after Newsom said public health officials in the state believe up to 25 million Californians—56% of the total population—could contract the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, within eight weeks unless far-reaching mitigation measures were taken immediately.

"There's a social contract here," Newsom said as he announced the lockdown. "People, I think, recognize the need to do more and meet this moment."

"This is not a permanent state, this is a moment in time," the governor added. "We will look back at these decisions as pivotal."

"We're going to make sure that you're getting critical medical supplies," Newsom said. "You can still take your kids outside, practicing common sense and social distancing. You can still walk your dog, you can still pick up food at one of our distribution centers, at a restaurant, at a drive-thru—all those things we will still be able to do."

More than 1,000 people in California have contracted the respiratory disease, which causes lung lesions and whose symptoms include fever, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. At least 19 people have died in the state, the nation's most populous, so far.

Newsom's decision made California the first state to impose a full lockdown. In recent days a number of counties and cities around the country have required residents to stay home except to procure essentials, and the governors of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey ordered restaurants, bars, casinos, and gyms, and movie theaters to close earlier this week. 

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed stronger restrictions in his state, including telling all non-essential state employees to stay at home, urging private businesses to tell their workers the same, and ordering New Yorkers statewide to stay indoors as much as possible.

The entire country should head in the direction of California's full shutdown to keep the coronavirus from spreading rapidly and overwhelming hospitals and healthcare workers, Collins suggested in an interview with USA Today.

"The approach we should be taking right now is one that most people would find to be too drastic because otherwise it is not drastic enough," Collins said, adding that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci has made similar comments.

Reported cases would likely continue to rise for a number of weeks even with a full lockdown, Collins said, but the results of taking the step at the national level would be apparent in the coming months.

"The approach we should be taking right now is one that most people would find to be too drastic because otherwise it is not drastic enough." 
—Francis Collins, NIH

"If we did everything right today, you would still see the numbers going up over the next two weeks because of what's out there already," Collins said. "We can't change that. But, what we might be able to do is change what's going to happen three or four weeks from now. That's our challenge."

Several countries in Europe have issued lockdown orders in the past week, requiring 250 million people to stay mostly at home as Italy surpassed China in the number of deaths from the coronavirus.

Italy began its full lockdown last week, followed by France, Spain, and Belgium. German officials said Friday that Germany may soon enter a lockdown as well; the country has already forced non-essential businesses to shut down.     

In California, Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggested on Fox News that Newsom's decision to shut down his home state was unnecessary and complained that he had not been consulted, saying that the production of medical supplies could suffer as the result of the lockdown—despite the provisions made for essential services.

On Friday, the physician who helped coin the phrase "flatten the curve," which has been repeated in recent weeks to urge people around the world to practice social distancing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, called on politicians in the U.S. to immediately stop approaching the coronavirus pandemic as a partisan issue.

"The partisan stuff has to stop," Dr. Howard Markel told The Hill. "It is time for our elected officials to govern and not to snipe at one another." 

"As sentient human beings we have the ability to make the right choice," he added. "And for now, the obvious and healthy choice is to get together, all do our parts, follow the suggestions of our health officials and beat back the threat of COVID-19."

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