U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations have crept higher as states increasingly loosen Covid-19 restrictions and try to return to some semblance of normalcy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC.
“We now see a trend in an uptick in hospitalizations. It’s a small uptick, but it is an uptick and it’s unmistakable and it is probably a result of reopening,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “We are going to have to watch it.”
Hospitalizations are a key indicator that epidemiologists watch closely to understand the state of the outbreak. Hospitalizations are not as dependent on the availability of testing as other closely watched measures such as the number of new cases, which is constrained by the number of tests deployed and delayed by shortages of equipment like swabs.
However, hospitalizations are likely a lagging indicator of the underlying reality, because it can take weeks for people to become infected, develop symptoms, get tested, receive test results and become sick enough to be admitted to a hospital.
“We expected cases to go up and hospitalizations to bump up when we reopened and I was talking to a lot of states about their plans and they were expecting that there was going to be an uptick,” said Gottlieb, who sits on the boards of Pfizer and biotech company Illumina. Pfizer has a Covid-19 vaccine under development. “That’s why they all implemented very staged reopenings where they reopened in phases and then reassessed the data to make sure that any increase wasn’t an inordinate increase.”
Every state has now reopened nonessential businesses and eased at least some restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus. However, states are moving at vastly different paces. Wisconsin reopened over night after the state’s Supreme Court overruled the governor’s stay-at-home orders whereas New Jersey has kept most nonessential businesses closed.
Some state officials, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, made the announcement to reopen despite failing to meet the criteria set by the White House, including a sustained drop in new infections for at least two weeks.
Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Arizona have all seen a small uptick in hospitalizations, said Gottlieb, who is a CNBC contributor. CNBC could not confirm the data Gottlieb referenced as not all states make hospitalization data available.
There are hopes that the virus will spread more slowly during the warmer summer months even as people begin to intermix more, Gottlieb said. There’s little evidence at this point to indicate that Covid-19 is a seasonal virus, but other human coronaviruses have shown seasonality, with most cases peaking in the winter months.
“The hope is that there’s a seasonal effect here,” Gottlieb said. “And that seasonal effect will hopefully offset the increased social interaction, which is going to cause cases to go up, so as we get into July and August things will start to either level off or go down.”
People should still practice social distancing precautions and where protective equipment such as masks as society continues to reopen, Gottlieb said. He added that images of large gatherings across the country over Memorial Day weekend worried him.
“I’m concerned there are people who think this is the all-clear, and I think what we really need to be doing is defining a new normal,” he said. “We’re going to need to live differently until we get a vaccine.”