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Dr. Scott Gottlieb defends widespread initial lockdowns: 'We didn't really know where the hot spots were'

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Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Friday defended the widespread initial lockdown measures put in place by state and local governments to help limit coronavirus spread, arguing public health officials did not have enough information to implement narrow shutdowns. 

“Could we have targeted the shutdown better to the hot spots? The problem was, we didn’t really know where the hot spots were when we were going through this during the first wave,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “We had no testing, and so we didn’t know where this was going to evolve to.” 

Gottlieb’s comments come as some states across the U.S. such as Arizona and Texas see increases in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations after their economies have been open for a few weeks. It has set off questions about how to respond to new outbreaks after business restrictions have already been lifted. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday the U.S. “can’t shut down the economy again” if there’s a second wave of Covid-19 cases, citing the economic devastation wrought by mandated closures of nonessential businesses. 

The first round of stay-at-home orders, put in place mostly in March, have already been the subject of criticism by some people who argue they were too restrictive and didn’t need to be done in states without large-scale outbreaks.

While not every governor issued a statewide order, more than 40 did. One recent academic study suggested more than 5 million cases of Covid-19 were prevented by the stay-at-home directives and business closures. The U.S. has about 2 million confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said he does not believe “we’re going to shut down again” due to future outbreaks but said the current situation in some cities and states will become common. 

“This is going to be the new normal,” said Gottlieb, a CNBC contributor who sits on the boards of Pfizer and biotech company Illumina. “We’re going to have these rolling outbreaks throughout the country, and we’re going to have to take targeted action.” 

But the information needed to implement targeted action was not necessarily available when the U.S. outbreak started to intensify, Gottlieb said. 

“We were flying blind in February and March. We take for granted how much capacity we have right now to do testing and interventions,” Gottlieb said. “We did not have that in February and March when we were going through this.” 

Gottlieb also said that the behavior of American residents and other business leaders, not strictly elected officials, played a significant role in the country’s response to Covid-19. 

“The White House and governors did not shut down the NBA,” Gottlieb said, referencing the basketball league’s decision to suspend its season on March 11. “The NBA shut down the NBA because they were reacting to … what was happening to fans and people.” 

What is happening now, Gottlieb argued, is basically the reverse of the response in mid-March. 

“People are driving the reopening because they’re tired of the shutdown, and so they’re forcing policymakers to reopen the economy,” he said. “Most states didn’t really achieve the criteria set out by public health officials for reopening, or the White House, yet they reopened because the people demanded it.” 

But now, in cities and states where cases are growing at rates that exceed increased testing capacity, local officials are going to need to deploy specific responses, Gottlieb said. He pointed to Houston, where Covid-19 hospitalizations in Harris County this week are at their highest-ever levels, according to the Houston Chronicle. 

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown paused the state’s economic reopening Thursday as daily Covid-19 cases hit another all-time high. Officials in Nashville, Tennessee, took similar steps on Thursday.  

“We shouldn’t view targeted interventions as a step backwards or a shutdown again. We’re going to have to be willing to take these targeted measures in isolated cities as outbreaks occur and not view that as somehow a defeat,” Gottlieb said. “That’s basically going to be life as we know it until we get to a vaccine.” 

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