The new coronavirus could kill millions across the United States, said Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine.
“It would not surprise me,” she told CNBC on Thursday when asked whether the U.S. could see millions of deaths. “We need to prepare for the worst.”
Neuzil sits on the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and is part of the leadership team of infectious disease experts working with NIH to test a coronavirus vaccine and therapies to treat those sick with COVID-19.
“We have 350 million people in the United States, and you do the math,” she said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” If 70 million people are eventually infected with this virus and again if there are multiple waves of this virus, then you can do the math and then you can get there.”
COVID-19 has now infected more than 9,159 across every state in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University, and killed at least 150 people in the country. On March 1, there were about 100 confirmed cases of the rapidly spreading virus in the U.S.
The number of actual cases in the country is likely significantly higher, state and local officials say. Testing in the U.S. has been hampered by delays and a restrictive diagnostic criteria that limited who could get tested.
Almost half of all confirmed U.S. cases are concentrated in three states: Washington, California and New York, where local and state officials have rolled out aggressive social distancing measures.
Those policies could reduce the number of deaths, said Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine.
“I firmly believe that the very aggressive social distancing and other strategies we’re implementing now will reduce the deaths,” she said. “What we’re worried about is overwhelming that system.”
However, there’s little uniformity across the country regarding social distancing policies. Without meaningful federal intervention, local leaders have adopted what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Monday a “hodgepodge” of actions across the nation to contain the outbreak. Cuomo and other tri-state area officials on Monday banned all gatherings of 50 or more people and placed restrictions on restaurants, bars and other places of recreation.
Governors in Maryland and Washington state, which has the second-highest number of cases behind New York but the nation’s most deaths, followed suit with similar actions.
San Francisco Bay area officials ordered some 7 million residents to “shelter in place” on Monday, marking what might be the most aggressive and restrictive measures in the country yet.
“Never since World War II have we faced a situation like this,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said when announcing new social distancing policies earlier this week. “For the next several weeks, normal is not in our game plan.”