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Bullard: "Household level" virus spread may require new "education initiative"

FILE PHOTO: St. Louis Fed President James Bullard speaks about the U.S. economy during an interview in New York February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The coronavirus may be spreading faster now “at the household level” rather than in business settings, and a new U.S. push for changes in personal behavior may be needed to control it, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said on Friday.

With case growth hitting records and death rates and hospitalizations rising, Bullard noted that since restrictions on many commercial activities remain in place, “it may be that renewed increases in infections are coming more from personal interactions at the household level.”

If so, “a renewed public education initiative asking households to take actions to reduce disease transmission may be helpful”, Bullard said in webcast remarks to the Economic Club of Memphis.

In his prepared remarks he did not offer specific ideas or address whether a national mask mandate or other federal level steps were warranted. He has spoken before of “granular risk-based policy” at the local level as the right approach, comparing the pandemic to public adoption of seat belts as a way to control the risks from automobile accidents.

Seat belt use for front seat passengers is mandated by law in all states except New Hampshire, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Bullard, who has been more optimistic than many of his colleagues about the ability of U.S. businesses and households to manage the risks of the pandemic, said in prepared remarks the he feels that adaptation, at least as far as the economy is concerned, is proceeding faster than expected.

The U.S. unemployment rate could see a “substantial decline,” to perhaps as low as 4.9%, in coming months as temporarily furloughed workers continue returning to jobs, he said.

“Despite this success downside risks remain substantial,” with the virus not yet controlled, Bullard said.

Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Catherine Evans