Jan 30, 2020 - Science

U.S. warned to prepare for worst on coronavirus

Passengers arriving at LAX wear protective masks to guard against coronavirus.
Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. should be preparing for the worst as the Chinese coronavirus spreads, and somebody at the White House needs to be in charge of coordinating that effort, public health experts say.

The big picture: The virus may never become a crisis here, but experts say the responsible thing right now is to plan for the worst and hope that those plans aren't needed.

The catch: The National Security Council official who would have been in charge of leading the response to a pandemic left in 2018, and now no one is around to do the job.

  • "They need to put someone at the White House in charge," Ron Klain, who served as then-President Obama's "Ebola czar," said this week on Axios' Pro Rata podcast.
  • Containing and combating a viral outbreak involves border patrol and national security officials; public health agencies at the federal, state and local levels; public and private vaccine researchers; and coordinating with individual hospitals.
  • It makes sense to put one person in charge of coordinating all of that, Klain said.

Where it stands: There have only been five confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., and there are still big unanswered questions about it.

The primary goal so far has been to contain the virus — that's why China has locked down the Wuhan area and the U.S. has expanded travel screenings for people traveling from China.

  • But keeping a lid on the coronavirus may simply be impossible.
  • "Global & national planning efforts should now be aimed at possibility that [the virus] cannot be contained," Tom Inglesby, an infectious-disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, wrote on Twitter.

China has already seen neatly 6,000 confirmed cases, touching every region of the country, and it has shown up now in 15 other countries, according to the latest World Health Organization update.

  • That suggests that the coronavirus spreads similarly to the flu virus, said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. And the flu spreads pretty easily.

"What you get concerned about is the contact of the contact of the contact of the person that was in China," Osterholm said.

  • That's part of the reason travel screening or travel restrictions may not make much of a difference, he said.

What’s next: Experts say there are a handful of priorities at this stage.

Hospitals need to stock up on protective equipment, to the extent they can find more supplies.

  • Health care workers are particularly susceptible to catching and spreading viruses like this one. But in terms of having enough protective equipment on hand, hospitals are "woefully unprepared" for a large-scale outbreak, Osterholm said.

The federal government also needs to be ready to step in, if a large number of cases start to crop up in concentrated areas.

  • Tracking infected people's contacts is "going to overwhelm state and local public health departments very, very quickly," Klain said.

Another lesson from the Ebola scare, experts said, is not to downplay the risks.

  • The U.S. was never at risk for a widespread Ebola outbreak, but Osterholm says too much emphasis on that fact might have made the public panic worse when a few isolated transmissions did occur.

The bottom line: "Don't tell the public that everything's going to be OK, but at the same time, tell the public we're going to get through this," Osterholm said.

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