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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.

Go deeper

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.