'The new normal': Ex-FDA chief warns U.S. may not be able to lower coronavirus infection rate

"The most likely scenario is that cases go up, not down," Scott Gottlieb said.

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By Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — As states begin to reopen their economies, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned Tuesday that the U.S. might not be able to lower transmission of the coronavirus much more than the current rate, which has resulted in about 30,000 new cases a day.

"I think that we need to understand this may be the new normal," Gottlieb said in an interview with Savannah Guthrie on NBC's "TODAY" show. "We may not be able to get transmission down much more. I hope we can.

"The most likely scenario is that cases go up, not down," Gottlieb added. "And so we need to think about what it looks like in the country if we have transmission of this virus and we try to get back to some sense of normalcy."

That would mean getting personal protective equipment to vulnerable populations who "end up being disadvantaged Americans" and who work under conditions in which they can't practice social distancing, such as in meatpacking plants.

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Gottlieb said analysts expected that the U.S. would have seen a decline in cases at this point as states navigate reopening aspects of their economies. But that hasn't happened.

"So as we go through May, we're likely to see the case count start to creep back up again," he said.

The U.S. is still experiencing a "high level of infection," Gottlieb said, and it has been on a sustained plateau for about 30 days, with about 30,000 new COVID-19 cases a day and sometimes 2,000 deaths a day. While he said New York has recorded a sustained decline, cases are increasing around the rest of the country.

"There's about 20 states where cases are going up on a daily basis, and so are hospitalizations," he said.

Gottlieb's comments came as some states are permitting businesses to reopen and after The New York Times reported that a new Trump administration internal document projected that deaths from the coronavirus could reach 3,000 a day on June 1. The document said the administration's forecast could reach 200,000 new COVID-19 cases a day by the end of the month.

"Modeling is imprecise, and that's why we shouldn't put stock in any one model," Gottlieb said. "It's not like forecasting the weather, where you make a prediction and then you see what happens. You make these predictions and then you take actions based on those predictions."

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President Donald Trump said Sunday in a Fox News virtual town hall that the U.S. death toll from the outbreak could reach 100,000, nearly double his earlier estimate. The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation revised its projection of potential deaths Monday to 135,000 by early August, citing the easing of social distancing restrictions around the U.S., Reuters reported.

Trump said Tuesday while departing the White House that he didn't agree with a new estimate of coronavirus deaths because it "assumes no mitigation" in its prediction; while a reporter had asked about the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projection, it was unclear whether the president was referring specifically to that forecast.

On Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House's response to the pandemic, said her predictions had consistently been that up to 240,000 Americans could die.

"Our projections have always been between 100,000 and 240,000 American lives lost, and that's with full mitigation and us learning from each other of how to social distance," she told Fox News.