Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday he believes the delta variant-driven Covid surge that slammed the American South has reached a top.
“I thought there was an indication the South was peaking, and I think it’s pretty clear right now the South has peaked,” the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner said. “It doesn’t feel that way because we still have a lot of new infections on a day-over-day basis, and the hospitals still have some very hard weeks ahead,” he acknowledged. “They’re still going to get maxed out as the infections start to decline.”
Gottlieb’s comments on “Squawk Box” came as the seven-day average of new daily coronavirus infections nationwide in the U.S. stood at roughly 147,300, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. That’s up 13% from a week ago.
Many Southern states, particularly in areas with lower Covid vaccination rates such as parts of Louisiana and Arkansas, were among the first places in the U.S. to see a sharp rise in coronavirus infections linked to the highly transmissible delta variant. Signs that the current wave of infection is rolling over in the South may offer insight into the experiences of other U.S. regions that got hit by the delta variant a few weeks later.
“You look at states like Arkansas and Louisiana, you see the cases coming down,” said Gottlieb, who serves on the board of Covid vaccine maker Pfizer. The company’s vaccine received full FDA approval Monday morning.
According to CNBC’s analysis of Johns Hopkins data, the seven-day average of new daily Covid infections in Arkansas is down 0.5% from a week ago, meaning it is more or less steady. In Louisiana, new daily coronavirus cases are down 14% from a week ago, based on a seven-day average, CNBC’s analysis found.
Other metrics inform Gottlieb’s view on the South. The former FDA chief, who led the drug regulator from 2017 to 2019 in the Trump administration, also pointed to estimated rates of transmission in Southern states that are calculated by the website covidestim.org.
Run by public health researchers at Harvard and Yale universities, the project provides real-time estimates on an epidemiological concept known as the an R0, or R naught. When the R naught is 1, it means the average person who is infected with coronavirus will transmit it to one other person. When the value is below 1 for a particular place, it signals declining transmission of a disease.
“The rate of expansion of this epidemic below 1 in most of the South,” including Florida, Gottlieb said, “which shows a contracting epidemic.”
Florida set a series of record highs for daily coronavirus infections during its delta-sparked surge, and hospitals in the state were being pushed to the limit. At one point in early August, Florida accounted for roughly 20% of reported new Covid cases in the U.S. CNBC’s analysis of Johns Hopkins data shows the seven-day average of new coronavirus infections in Florida is more or less steady, down 0.67% from a week ago.
“If you look at the data in Florida, cases day over day are coming down for every age category except children under the age of 18 because you’re now seeing outbreaks in schools that are driving the infection,” Gottlieb said. “If schools weren’t open in Florida … and you didn’t see that outbreak in children, Florida would very clearly be coming down in terms of day-over-day cases.”
In late July, Gottlieb told CNBC he thought the U.S. overall would begin to see a plateau of its delta-driven wave in mid to late August. That didn’t happen.
More recently, on Aug. 13, he said, “you’re going to see the delta wave course through probably between late September through October.” Also during that interview, he added, “Hopefully we’ll be on the other side of it or coming on the other side of it sometime in November, and we won’t see a big surge of infection after this on the other side of this delta wave.”
Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion Inc. and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line’s and Royal Caribbean’s “Healthy Sail Panel.”