As the nation gears for battle against coronavirus, our biggest enemy is false information. A lot of that is coming from the same place as the virus -- China. Government officials there have deceived and equivocated about how the disease got started. China has been blaming the new virus on the sale of live exotic animals like bats at an outdoor food market in the city of Wuhan, claiming that’s where the earliest cases originated. But new research in the medical journal Lancet proves that the first victims of coronavirus had no contact with that food market, contrary to the official story. One possibility is that the virus leaked from China’s National Bio-Safety Laboratory, also in Wuhan, which handles some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens.
If the U.S. is going to develop medications and vaccines against this coronavirus — now dubbed COVID-19 — our scientists need the truth.
The next source of misinformation is from our own Democratic politicians. Sens.Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are accusing the Trump administration of having “no plan.” That’s a blatant lie. Trump officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services have been briefing the public daily, as they fine-tune their response to this rapidly evolving global virus. So Senators, just go to cdc.gov to read the 52-page plan and stop whining.
Trump’s initial response, back on Jan. 31, was to bar foreign travelers recently in China and quarantine or monitor American travelers returning from China. Presidential aspirant former Vice President Joe Biden bashed Trump’s travel restrictions as “reactionary,” but truth is, they worked. You can’t fight a virus with political correctness. So far the U.S. has been more successful than open-border European countries in minimizing the impact on local residents.
Trump’s travel restrictions slowed the arrival of the virus, sparing our hospitals from a sudden surge of patients sick with an unrecognizable disease. Those travel restrictions also bought the U.S. time to develop a diagnostic test, alert hospitals and adapt its longstanding pandemic flu plan to the specific features of coronavirus.
As President Trump has pointed out, seasonal flu sickens tens of millions of Americans each year and kills tens of thousands, while the U.S. has identified only a handful of locally spread coronavirus cases and no deaths at all. But there’s a reason his health officials are responding seriously to this novel virus. It spreads faster than flu and is over forty times as deadly, with a mortality rate of 2.3 percent compared with the flu’s 0.05 percent. It is also harder to contain because infected people can spread it even when they have no symptoms themselves.
No one knows whether this virus will spread here or fizzle out. In an alarming statement on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Nancy Messonnier cautioned the public to prepare for “significant disruption of our lives” if the virus spreads.
She laid out what governments at all levels would do. The broad contours are first, preparing hospitals and doctors to treat infected patients and identifying their contacts who may also be infected. Secondly, closing schools (which Japanese officials did this week) and encouraging people to stay home. School closures helped stopped the spread of H1N1 flu here and in Canada and Mexico in 2009. Thirdly, disinfecting public spaces. Think subways, busses, arenas and airports.
As of Friday, Messonnier reminded the public that the risk to Americans remains “really low.”
Even so, to reduce that risk and raise public confidence, the federal government should take three steps now, without waiting to see if the virus explodes here.
Install hand hygiene dispensers in every airport jetway and check-in area
Travelers carrying the virus still pose the biggest risk to the U.S., despite some signs of local spread.
Coughing and sneezing spray viral droplets but they only reach six feet. More significant is the risk of touching a surface after an infected person’s contaminated hands have touched it. The virus can live on hard surfaces such as check-in touch screens and railings for as long as 9 days.
MIT researchers estimate that improving travelers’ hand cleanliness by installing the airport dispensers could reduce viral spread by double digits.
Don’t let this crisis go to waste
Congress and the Food and Drug Administration should act now to remedy our dangerous over-reliance on China for the raw materials used in antibiotics, lung and breast cancer drugs, anti-virals such as Tamiflu and blood thinners. What’s needed are tax and regulatory incentives to push pharmaceutical companies to bring their supply chain home. America wouldn’t rely on China to manufacture our fighter planes and tanks. Depending on China to stock our medicine chests and keep us alive is just as crazy.
Conduct infection-control drills in hospitals across the country
Rigorous training is needed to stop the virus from sweeping through hospitals and infecting nurses and doctors, as well as patients there for other medical problems. When an earlier coronavirus – SARS – struck Ontario, Canada in 2003, a staggering 77 percent of people infected contracted it in the hospital because of lax infection control. That mistake should not be repeated. History shows that during viral outbreaks like this one, a hospital is the most dangerous place to be.
Practical advice – don’t go to an emergency room unless it’s a real emergency. That’s where people unknowingly infected with coronavirus are likely to seek help. You don’t want to be waiting next to them.