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U.S. coronavirus cases have surpassed 4.1 million, while many other nations have seen a drop in case numbers. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Health professionals and medical experts from across the United States, including 11 Penn faculty members, have signed an open letter to America's decision makers calling for a national strategy to change the trajectory of the pandemic and its rapidly escalating death toll. 

Over 240 health professionals have signed the letter, which was published by the United States Public Interest Research Group, a non-partisan advocacy group that focuses on making political change. 

The open letter, titled "Shut it Down, Start Over, Do it Right," argues that the U.S. economy reopened prematurely and that another shutdown, as well as a significant increase in daily testing and other medical resources, is needed to contain the virus. As U.S. coronavirus cases surpass 4.1 million and many states continue to set single-day case records, government officials are being widely criticized for the country's response to the pandemic.

"Right now we are on a path to lose more than 200,000 American lives by November 1," the letter reads. "Yet, in many states people can drink in bars, get a haircut, eat inside a restaurant, get a tattoo, get a massage, and do myriad other normal, pleasant, but non-essential activities."

Dr. Wade Berrettini, a psychiatry professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, was one of the Penn faculty members who signed the letter. He said that he signed the letter because the country's current approach is a "clear failure" and that a mandatory set of behaviors, such as wearing masks and the suspending non-essential travel and other activities, must be implemented nationwide in order to control the spread of the virus.

"I don't like these restrictions on our 'freedoms.' But your freedom ends where it endangers my well being and my health," he said.

Berrettini also said he supports significantly increasing the nation's testing capacity. As a member of Penn's Smilow Center for Translational Research, he said he has been tested for COVID-19 every two to three weeks. This frequency of testing must be available to the general population, Berrettini said.

The need to increase daily testing is among the items addressed in the letter, which states that the United States only has 35% of the testing capacity that it needs to adequately track the spread of the virus. Ramping up testing is also necessary to effectively perform widespread contact tracing, another area in which the letter says the U.S. is falling far short.

The state of Pennsylvania reported 1,213 new cases and 22 deaths on July 24, and the number of cases in the state has been steadily increasing in the past month. 

The letter was addressed to "America's decision makers," specifically calling upon 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump, the federal administration, and the governors of all 50 states to address the demands.  

Berrettini and Professor of Medicine Dr. John Hansen-Flaschen, who also signed the letter, said their primary target audience for the letter is the governors rather than the Trump administration.

"I certainly do not expect the current administration to follow these guidelines," Berrettini said. "Scientific opinion and expert opinion do not carry weight."

Hansen-Flaschen said he hopes the letter can help state and local leaders resist political pressure to reopen their economies, adding that Pennsylvania is doing a "very good job" in response to the pandemic but is falling short in regards to testing. 

There were 19,312 tests performed in the state on July 24, representing less than 0.2% of the Pennsylvania population.

The recent spike in cases throughout the U.S potentially has significant implications for the University, as all students and professors are invited to return to campus for the start of the fall semester in approximately one month.

Hansen-Flaschen, who is 70 years old and currently works in person at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania two days a week, said he is confident that if doctors and researchers can work safely in a hospital, students and faculty can engage in in-person learning without risking an outbreak.

Berrettini, however, believes that allowing students to return for the fall is risky, particularly because of the large number of students who will be living in off-campus housing.

"I have grave concern for this plan," Berrettini said. "But I can't be critical of [the University] because we all are, to some extent, dancing in the dark." 

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