"The U.S. is past this opportunity to control (COVID-19) without shutdown," Gates said during a TED Connects program broadcast online. "We did not act fast enough to have an ability to avoid the shutdown."
"It's January when everybody should've been on notice," Gates added. The virus was first discovered in December in China.
Government officials across the country have advised or directed residents in the past days to stay home in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus that's infected at least 46,500 people in the U.S. Many locations, including California, New York City and Washington, D.C., have ordered all nonessential businesses to temporarily close. As a result, unemployment claims are surging and markets are hitting multiyear lows.
President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he wants businesses to open by Easter, April 12, to soften the economic impact. Government officials and health experts have widely criticized these calls, warning that bringing people back to work will overwhelm the health-care system and lead to more deaths.
Gates acknowledged Tuesday that self isolation will be "disastrous" for the economy, but "there really is no middle ground." He suggested a shutdown of six to 10 weeks.
"It's very tough to say to people, 'Hey keep going to restaurants, go buy new houses, ignore that pile of bodies over in the corner, we want you to keep spending because there's some politician that thinks GDP growth is what counts,'" Gates said. "It's hard to tell people during an epidemic … that they should go about things knowing their activity is spreading this disease."
Gates added Tuesday that the United States needs to ramp up its COVID-19 testing abilities and better navigate who actually needs to be tested.
"In terms of testing, we're still not creating that capacity and applying it to people in need," Gates said. "The testing thing has got to be organized, has got to be prioritized. That is super, super urgent."
Gates has long focused on the health field within his work at the nonprofit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Last week, Gates hosted an Ask Me Anything session on the discussion forum Reddit to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic with users.
Additionally, Gates warned in his 2015 TED Talk that the world needs to prepare more for a pandemic.
"We've actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We're not ready for the next epidemic," Gates said at the time. When referencing his TED Talk on Tuesday, Gates said that "sadly very little was done," but he remains optimistic.