Health and Science

CDC chief says Northerners heading South for vacation may be to blame for surge in coronavirus cases, not state reopenings

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Key Points
  • "We're of the view that there was something else that was the driver. Maybe the Memorial Day, not weekend, but the Memorial Day week, where a lot of Northerners decided to go South for vacations," Redfield said.
  • He did not provide data to back up his theory that Northerners travelling South are to blame for the surge in cases.
  • Redfield's comments appear to contradict remarks by White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2020.
Kevin Dietsch | Reuters

The current surge in coronavirus cases across the American South may have been caused by Northerners who traveled South for vacation around Memorial Day, said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If you look at the South, everything happened around June 12 to June 16. It all simultaneously kind of popped," he said in an interview Tuesday with Dr. Howard Bauchner of The Journal of the American Medical Association. Independent of state reopening plans, "we're of the view that there was something else that was the driver. Maybe the Memorial Day, not weekend, but the Memorial Day week, where a lot of Northerners decided to go South for vacations."

Because the South hadn't yet experienced large outbreaks like the Northeast, many Southern states and cities reopened bars and gyms early and didn't require people to wear masks or to practice social distancing "that seriously," Redfield said. Once the virus was introduced in those areas, that could have allowed it to spread quickly.

Redfield did not provide any data to back up his theory that Northerners travelling South are to blame for the surge in cases. And as states prepared to reopen gradually, some officials previously warned that regional coordination was necessary so that some states reopening would not attract travelers from areas where the virus is more prevalent.

"Something happened in mid-June that we're now confronting right now," Redfield added. "And it's not as simple as just saying it was related to timing of reopening or not reopening."

New cases have been steadily rising across the so-called Sun Belt, driven by Florida, Texas and California, which collectively have made up nearly half of all new cases in the U.S. in some recent days. Led by the so-called hot-spot states, the country is now averaging more than 60,000 new cases per day, based on a seven-day average calculated by CNBC using data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Over the past week or so, Covid-19 deaths have begun to increase as well. State officials had pointed to the fact that the virus appeared to be mostly infecting younger people, who are failing to adhere to public health guidance across the South, as reason to hope that deaths would continue to drop even as cases increased. But on Monday, Arizona, South Carolina and Texas all hit record high average daily deaths, based on a seven-day average using data from Johns Hopkins.

Redfield defended the U.S. coronavirus response, saying that initial projections estimated that the virus could have killed up to 2.4 million people in the U.S. He added that "while not perfect," the U.S. response has "really made an impact." Specifically, he praised President Donald Trump's decision to suspend travel to and from China, even though the virus was also beginning to spread to the U.S. from parts of Europe by then. An analysis of the virus strains found in New York City and elsewhere later showed that the outbreak was seeded primarily by travelers from Europe, not China. 

"We tried to give states guidance on how to reopen safely. I think the guidance we put out was really sound," he said. "I think if you look critically, few states actually followed that guidance, although I don't think the reopening's actually what's driving the current Southern expansion right now."

White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has previously said some states reopened without meeting federal guidance for doing so. Such guidelines included, for example, adequate contact tracing infrastructure and 15 consecutive days of declining new cases.

Redfield's comments appear to contradict remarks by Fauci, who said in an interview Monday that the United States is seeing a surge in new Covid-19 infections because the country never shut down entirely.

Early in the outbreak, U.S. coronavirus cases peaked at around 30,000 new cases a day before falling and plateauing at roughly 20,000 new cases per day in mid-May, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins. As some states began to reopen in late April through June, new cases started to surge, Fauci told Stanford Medicine Dean Dr. Lloyd Minor during an interview. The U.S. is now averaging roughly 60,000 new cases a day, according to a seven-day average of cases tracked by Johns Hopkins. 

"We did not shut down entirely," Fauci said. "We need to draw back a few yards and say, 'OK, we can't stay shut down forever.' ...You've got to shut down but then you've got to gradually open."

The CDC and individual health officials have increasingly been facing pressure from Trump and other members of his administration. During an interview Thursday with Fox News' Sean Hannity, the president said, "Dr. Fauci's a nice man, but he's made a lot of mistakes.

"They've been wrong about a lot of things, including face masks," he said. "Maybe they're wrong, maybe not. A lot of them said don't wear a mask, don't wear a mask. Now they're saying wear a mask. A lot of mistakes were made, a lot of mistakes."

And last week, Trump slammed the CDC's guidance on how schools should consider reopening as "tough," "expensive" and "impractical." Vice President Mike Pence later said at a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing that the CDC would be issuing new guidance to supplement its previously published documents.

"If you decide to define yourself by external criticism, I would tell you, this isn't a job for you," Redfield said Tuesday. "I do think if we could just unite as a country, realizing that we do have tools. We're not defenseless."

Earlier on Tuesday, four former CDC directors wrote in an op-ed published in The Washington Post that the U.S. faces "two opponents" in its efforts to reopen the country: Covid-19 and politicians and others attempting to undermine the CDC.

"It is not unusual for CDC guidelines to be changed or amended during a clearance process that moves through multiple agencies and the White House. But it is extraordinary for guidelines to be undermined after their release," wrote the former CDC directors: Tom Frieden, who served under former President Barack Obama; Jeffrey Koplan, who served under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; David Satcher, who served under Clinton; and Richard Besser, who served under Obama.

"Through last week, and into Monday, the administration continued to cast public doubt on the agency's recommendations and role in informing and guiding the nation's pandemic response," they said.