White House warns Americans aren't doing enough to flatten the coronavirus curve in some states

Social distancing works, but not enough people are doing it in some places, says Deborah Birx, a doctor advising the administration during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force, warned on Thursday that easing up on social distancing could cause more coronavirus outbreaks in the US. During a briefing on Tuesday, pictured here, she talked about the curve depicting the number of cases in the US.

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Social distancing effectively prevents new coronavirus cases, but some Americans aren't taking the president's guidelines seriously, the White House warned Thursday. That could lead to more outbreaks and make it harder to get the virus in check, an expert said, making it imperative for people to stay away from others to avoid getting sick. 

Dr. Deborah Birx, who's advising the administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, noted that the curve depicting infections over time in the US has been steep, which indicates the coronavirus isn't under control. That's because not everyone is following recommendations to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, stay at least six feet apart and wash their hands. People falling sick now were infected after the US issued those guidelines, Birx said. 

"We're only as strong as every community, every county, every state, every American following the guidelines to a T," Birx said, as she noted countries like France, Spain, Germany and even Italy, one of the coronavirus hotspots, have made progress in flattening their curves. "I can tell by the curve [in the US] ... that not every American is following it. This is really a call to action."

President Donald Trump was quick to say that Birx meant curves are steep in some states, not the US overall. In New York, there's a major outbreak of the coronavirus and a sharp curve, with more sick people expected than beds, ventilators and other needed supplies. In California, which took steps early to lock down the entire state, the curve is flatter. 

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Still, Birx said that even states with flat curves could see the situation change quickly if social distancing isn't followed strictly over the next month.

"What changes the curve is a new Detroit, a new Chicago, a new New Orleans, a new Colorado," she said, referring to locations with big outbreaks. "Those changed the curves."

The White House on Thursday also said there likely will be new guidelines issued about wearing cloth face masks outside the home. Currently, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says members of the general public don't need to wear face masks unless they're sick or caring for someone who is ill. But many outbreaks and infections are being caused by people who are infected but show no symptoms. 

The new coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It causes an illness known as COVID-19 and has been linked to a family of viruses known as coronaviruses, which include SARS and MERS. The World Health Organization in March labeled COVID-19 a pandemic, and the virus has changed the way we live. The outbreak has caused cities and entire countries around the globe to issue lockdowns, shuttering stores, canceling events and ordering citizens to stay at home to help contain the coronavirus. As of Thursday, over 1 million people worldwide have been infected and over 51,000 have died.

Flattening the curve

When it comes to fighting the coronavirus outbreak, a term used often is "flattening the curve." The idea is that communities and countries can delay the peak of the outbreak and relieve some of the stress on the health care system. A sharp curve -- a huge, quick increase -- denotes how a pandemic caused by an infectious disease like COVID-19 would spread through a community with no intervention strategies in place. Without mitigating the spread, cases would rise rapidly, peaking when the community is almost wholly infected, before dropping back down. 


What coronavirus curves could look like, as adapted from CDC pre-pandemic guidelines.


The second curve is much flatter and denotes a pandemic scenario where there has been intervention. There will still be cases, but the health care system will have the beds, supplies and workers needed to help the infected people. 

Because there's no vaccine or treatment for coronavirus, social distancing and hand washing are the most effective ways to avoid getting sick. 

Wearing a mask

Wearing masks is another step people can take to protect themselves, but it should be done in addition to the other guidelines like social distancing, Birx said. Vice President Mike Pence said new mask-wearing guidelines could be issued in the next several days. 

It's likely the new recommendation will say that all people should wear cloth masks outside their homes, whether they're sick or not. Some infected people don't have symptoms and can spread the virus to others without ever knowing they have it. Still, people wearing masks should exercise the same caution as if they weren't wearing masks -- stay at least six feet away from other people, avoid group gatherings, only go outside for exercise and essential errands, and wash hands when returning home. 

Birx said the country has delayed recommending everyone wear masks because of worries that people would feel "a false sense of security that that mask is protecting you exclusively from getting infected." Wearing a mask isn't a guarantee that you'll be protected, especially not scarves or homemade face coverings, which don't block particulates like N95 masks do. The stronger masks are being reserved for use by health care workers and other people on the front lines of the pandemic.

"We want to make sure everybody understands [the mask-wearing recommendation] is not a substitute for the presidential guidelines that have already come out," Birx said. 

"We're all trying to protect each other, and we have to adapt to this new reality we're in right now," she added. "Trying really, really hard for this next 28 days ... will make a tremendous difference."

CNET's Jackson Ryan contributed to this report.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.