Dr. Scott Gottlieb: U.S. at Covid ‘tipping point’ but can still prevent new ‘exponential spread’

Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Monday warned that the United States is “at a tipping point” in its coronavirus pandemic, as the nation recorded all-time high levels of Covid-19 cases in recent days.

New U.S. cases set a one-day record of 83,757 on Friday and reached nearly that amount on Saturday. More than a dozen states reached record virus-related hospitalizations on Friday, based on a weekly average.

“We’re likely to see a very dense epidemic. I think we’re right now at the cusp of what is going to be exponential spread in parts of the country,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Monday.

Public health experts have warned for months that Covid was likely to spike in the fall and winter, as the colder weather forced more people indoors, where transmission of the virus can occur more easily.

At this point, Gottlieb contended there is still an opportunity for the country to stave off reimplementing broad-based lockdowns by using tailored restrictions in areas with significant spread. The former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner cautioned, however, that the window is closing.

“I think we’re at a tipping point right now where if we took some aggressive, targeted steps right now we could potentially forestall the worst of it,” said Gottlieb, who led the regulatory agency from May 2017 to April 2019 in the Trump administration.

Gottlieb has frequently said he believes states across the U.S. are unlikely to revert to widespread stay-at-home orders again, in part because better testing makes it easier to determine where hot-spot areas are and in part because the public’s willingness to accept them is low.

“I know people are exhausted. It’s been very hard on families and on individuals, on businesses, especially, but we really have two or three months of the acute phase of this pandemic to get through,” Gottlieb said Monday. He called it likely the “hardest phase” yet of a health crisis that has killed more than 225,000 Americans, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

“We need to try to pull together and see what we can do to try to control the spread so our health-care systems don’t become overwhelmed. Because once they do, once we reach that breaking point, the policy action that we’re going to need to take is going to be more aggressive, unfortunately, than if we had did some things up front,” he said.

On Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said the U.S. was “not going to control the pandemic,” but rather focus on developing treatments and vaccines that can limit mortality from the virus.

Gottlieb has said it is unlikely for a vaccine to be widely available in the coming months and argued that antibody treatments are not “going to end the epidemic.”

However, public-health strategies can allow the economy to continue functioning while also attempt to control transmission of the virus, Gottlieb said. They include closing certain high-risk venues or using curfews to close bars “where you know there’s going to be a lot of spread,” he said. 

Strict adherence to mask requirements, especially at indoor locations where people gather, also would be helpful, he said. “And then you appeal to the public to be more judicious about what they do. Instead of going shopping three times a week, you do it once.” 

The surge of infections may not feel like the height of the pandemic earlier this year, when daily deaths from the coronavirus eclipsed 2,000 in April, Gottlieb said. He said that’s because instead of severe outbreaks being concentrated in a few regions such as the Northeast, the spread is more distributed. 

“Every part of the country has a medium infection right now instead of one part of the country really being inundated with infection,” he said, while noting there are more intense outbreaks in Midwestern states such as Wisconsin and the Dakotas. 

“The other states are going to catch up. They’re a little bit in the early phase of this, but you’re going to see pretty diffuse infection across the country, and a lot of places are going to reach very high levels of infection,” he added. “That’s what it looks like, and that’s why this is probably going to be a difficult couple of months.” 

Disclosure: Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings′ and Royal Caribbean‘s Healthy Sail Panel.