Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday that most Americans should feel comfortable safely gathering over Independence Day weekend, citing high Covid vaccination rates and low virus infection levels in many parts of the country.
However, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner said there are certain places where people should be more careful.
“There’s very low prevalence around the country. You have to judge based on where you are,” Gottlieb said on “Squawk Box.” He noted that new daily cases in his home state of Connecticut are small, “so it’s a pretty safe environment right now to be getting together.”
“In some parts of the country where you see prevalence rising — Missouri, parts of Nevada, Arkansas, Oklahoma — I think people should exercise more caution,” added Gottlieb, who serves on the board of Covid vaccine maker Pfizer.
Gottlieb’s comments ahead of the Fourth of July weekend come as U.S. health officials are closely monitoring the Covid delta variant, which is believed to be considerably more transmissible than dominant strains at earlier points in the pandemic.
Coronavirus cases in the country are dramatically lower than their peak in January, when the nation recorded over 300,000 new infections on a single day, but they have been trending upward in recent days, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.
The U.S. is averaging about 12,700 new Covid cases per day, over the past week, the analysis found. That’s up 9% compared with one week ago.
“We don’t want to alarm people, but we follow these numbers really, really carefully,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC News after a White House briefing Thursday.
Deaths remain in decline. The seven-day average of new Covid deaths is 249, down 19% from one week prior, according to CNBC’s analysis.
“There’s sort of isolated parts of the country where you’re seeing infection levels rise. The rest of the country looks very good,” Gottlieb said. “I think what you’re seeing is a decoupling between places with high vaccination rates and places with low vaccination rates. You’re also, quite frankly, seeing a decoupling between cases and the extreme death and disease that this virus was causing.”
In nations with high vaccination rates but also rising cases due to the delta variant, such as the U.K. and Israel, “hospitalizations and deaths aren’t increasing” in the manner they had earlier in the global health crisis, Gottlieb said.
“For a while, we thought that was just the lagging effect where you don’t see hospitalizations pick up until three, four weeks after you see cases start to rise, same with deaths,” said Gottlieb, who led the FDA from 2017 to 2019 in the Trump administration.
“But at this point, we have enough of a trend to suggest you’re just going to see a decoupling right now and you’re not going to see the extreme outcomes from the virus in parts of the world where vaccination rates are high, and that includes the United States.”
For that reason, Gottlieb said, it’s important to ensure more Americans receive a coronavirus vaccine, which reduces both spread of the virus and the risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the disease.
Nearly 156 million Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Just over 181 million people have received at least one dose; Pfizer’s and Moderna‘s vaccines require two shots, while Johnson & Johnson‘s is a single dose.
Geographic gaps in vaccination coverage exist, though. The CDC’s Walensky said Thursday that roughly 1,000 U.S. counties, most of which are located in the Southeast and Midwest, have less than 30% of residents vaccinated.
Overall, 47% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
“Preliminary data over the last six months suggest 99.5% of deaths from Covid-19 in the States have occurred in unvaccinated people … the suffering and loss we are now seeing is nearly entirely avoidable,” Walensky said.
Gottlieb said even though he’s fully vaccinated, he still is “looking for opportunities to exercise caution” because the pandemic is not fully behind the country.
“Like if I go to a restaurant right now and there’s an option to sit outside, I eat outside. I think where you can be sort of a nervous Bayesian and lower your statistical probability of coming into contact with the virus, why not?” Gottlieb said. “But I wouldn’t hold back on gathering with friends and family this holiday, because the virus is spreading …. in very low numbers in certain parts of the country.”