As fears mount over coronavirus, perspective is in order. If you’re reading this editorial, chances are you’ve already survived a pandemic, the term for when an epidemic goes global.
In 2009, U.S. health officials detected a new strain of influenza circulating here, one containing a “unique combination of influenza genes not previously identified in animals or people.” After its rapid worldwide spread, medical experts declared the influenza epidemic a pandemic. From April 2009 until the pandemic’s end in April 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there were 60.8 million cases, 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the United States.
While health officials have yet to declare coronavirus a pandemic, it’s increasingly clear that it’s on the verge of being one and that the U.S. must be ready for the pathogen’s likely escalation here. Doctors, hospitals, state and local health departments and, most important, the public, need to understand how quickly the coronavirus is spreading and the role that everyone has in combating it. The clarity about coronavirus risks communicated this week by the CDC, the Minnesota Department of Health and infectious-disease specialists such as Minnesota’s Mike Osterholm is alarming but appropriate.
This is a virus that can kill and is more easily transmitted than initially thought. This better understanding of how contagious it is has been a game-changer. It’s behind the CDC’s assessment this week that the virus’ spread within the U.S. is inevitable and that “this might be bad.” That bluntness may have spooked the stock market, but it was necessary. Public health should be paramount, and it is best served by honesty about the challenges that might lie ahead. An informed nation is one that can come together to control this virus, just as it did with the influenza pandemic 11 years ago.
President Donald Trump’s tweets this week focusing on economic fallout and suggesting that partisanship is driving concerns have not been helpful. Thankfully, Congress is rising to the occasion. Coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it’s officially known, spurred several hearings this week in the House and Senate. Republicans and Democrats have asked thoughtful questions and made it abundantly clear that funding to fight this outbreak will not be a problem.
On Tuesday, for example, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., urged administration officials not to “lowball” requests for additional dollars. The Star Tribune Editorial Board shares Shelby’s concerns and also wishes the request would have come much sooner. The administration is seeking $2.5 billion in emergency spending, some of which involves nonsensically diverting money from other important programs. In comparison, the Obama administration asked Congress for $6.2 billion to rein in a 2014 Ebola outbreak. And this week, Politico reported that one analyst, a former federal emergency preparedness official, said as much as $15 billion may be needed.
Smart questions by lawmakers from both parties have also put a spotlight on readiness. Answers from Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Chad Wolf, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, have not been reassuring. Under questioning from a GOP senator, Wolf “struggled to produce basic facts and projections about the disease,” according to The Washington Post. Azar has had to revise the number of protective masks the nation has ready in case of an outbreak, suggesting that officials don’t have a firm grasp on supplies stockpiled.
The duo’s performance indicates a lack of coordination at the federal level. Dr. Peter Hotez, a Baylor University infectious-disease specialist, has suggested appointing a coronavirus “czar” to harmonize agencies and establish a clear chain of command. That’s a sensible recommendation. Once the epidemic is under control, the czar should also do a broader analysis to ensure that it has the management infrastructure in place to handle pandemic and other health threats. Reports that the Trump administration dismantled the system built to handle the Ebola outbreak are unsettling.
The number of coronavirus cases worldwide has now topped 81,000. Fifty-seven have been confirmed in the United States. There is currently no vaccine or treatment other than supportive care. Measures needed to stop the virus’ spread may include school and day care closings, employees working at home, and canceling conferences and other meetings. This will not be easy, which is why straight talk from the CDC and other public health experts is vital right now.
— Minnesota Star Tribune