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CDC head downplays COVID-19 models, says deaths will be 'much lower' than projected

ABC News logo ABC News 4/7/2020

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One of the nation’s top public health officials suggested Monday that because Americans are taking social distancing recommendations “to heart,” the death toll from the novel coronavirus will be “much, much, much lower” than models have projected.

“If we just social distance, we will see this virus and this outbreak basically decline, decline, decline. And I think that's what you're seeing,” said Robert Redfield, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control.

“I think you're going to see the numbers are, in fact, going to be much less than what would have been predicted by the models,” he said.

(MORE: Trump adviser Navarro clashes with Fauci on hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19)

Redfield’s remarks on Monday to AM 1030 KVOI Radio in Tucson, Arizona, struck a rosier tone than some other recent predictions. On Monday morning, for example, the U.S. Surgeon General equated the coming week’s fallout to the attacks on Pearl Harbor. 

But officials on the White House task force have said they believe that even with a tough week ahead, the numbers in some places suggest that social distancing is working and could provide a reprieve eventually.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield sits after a meeting with nursing industry representatives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House about the COVID-19 pandemic, March 18, 2020, in Washington. © Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images, FILE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield sits after a meeting with nursing industry representatives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House about the COVID-19 pandemic, March 18, 2020, in Washington.

National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease Director Anthony Fauci said he was very interested in data in New York that the number of admissions to intensive care and intubations in the last three days had started to level off.

“We just got to realize that this is an indication despite all the suffering and the death that has occurred that what we have been doing has been working,” he told reporters.

At the same time, Dr. John Brownstein, a Harvard epidemiologist and ABC News contributor, said that Redfield’s comments could mislead Americans into feeling a sense that the disease’s spread is under control.

(MORE: Trump, other top officials yet to don masks in public despite announcing CDC guidelines)

“Projections and models across the board are accounting for a reduction in mobility because of social distancing, so it’s way too soon to declare any kind of victory,” he said. “This is not a moment for people to relax because they feel the models are wrong.”

Deborah Birx et al. standing in a room: White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx listens to President Donald Trump speak to reporters at the White House on April 6, 2020, in Washington. © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx listens to President Donald Trump speak to reporters at the White House on April 6, 2020, in Washington.

Redfield, for his part, downplayed the dire projections.

“Models are only as good as their assumptions, obviously there are a lot of unknowns about the virus” he said. “A model should never be used to assume that we have a number.”

Models released last week by the White House Coronavirus Task Force suggested that the virus is expected to kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans.

Redfield also said the CDC kept some early models to themselves, without divulging the timing or nature of those models.

“CDC had models early on -- we didn't really publicize the models,” he said. “We used them internally to understand mitigation strategies.”

Once a fixture of the administration’s public response to the disease’s spread, Redfield has taken a backseat in recent weeks. Others like Fauci and White House Task Force Chair Dr. Deborah Birx have taken on more outspoken roles.

What to know about the coronavirus:

Tune into ABC at 1 p.m. ET and ABC News Live at 4 p.m. ET every weekday for special coverage of the novel coronavirus with the full ABC News team, including the latest news, context and analysis.

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