As medical professionals and members of Congress, we have serious concern over the global spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Since the disease emerged in Wuhan, China, widespread outbreaks have occurred in South Korea, Iran, Italy and Japan.
The number of cases in the United States continues to increase and will likely increase substantially as widespread testing begins. This isn’t our first experience dealing with an epidemic, and as medical professionals, we believe the U.S. is prepared to effectively combat the virus.
As is being widely reported, good hygiene will help combat the community spread of this virus.
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if you haven’t washed your hands. Avoid handshakes and, instead, try to bump elbows. Sneeze into a tissue or your elbow. Stay home if you’re ill. Disinfect commonly touched surfaces. Postpone travel. Stay home as much as possible and avoid publicly congregating in order to flatten the curve and protect everyone, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
These are all commonsense measures to help prevent more widespread transmission.
However, good hygiene isn’t enough. This pandemic has been compared to influenza, both in terms of the virus’ spread and symptoms. But there are key differences. Most significantly, we haven’t yet developed medications or vaccines to fight this disease. Most Americans today consider the spread of the flu as potentially dangerous, yet manageable. The flu impacted 35 million Americans last year, causing over 490,000 hospitalizations and over 34,000 deaths. Without medicine or a vaccine, coronavirus has the potential to be more widespread and deadly than the flu. That’s why we must take this threat seriously.
Most individuals who contract COVID-19 will have mild to severe symptoms that resemble a cold or flu and will recover. However, a significant number will also require hospitalization. If these hospitalizations occur rapidly, it has the potential to overwhelm our hospitals. For instance, emergency room visits or necessary cancer care may be disrupted if our system is overcapacity. Therefore, we must limit the spread.
Congress provided $8.3 billion in emergency funding to prepare for this epidemic. This funding will greatly expand the availability of test kits that are vital in our efforts to stop this illness. We can’t fight the disease if we don’t know where it is and who has it.
Testing availability is expanding rapidly. Funding will also ensure our public health departments have resources to set priorities locally and will help develop vaccines and treatments to combat this disease. It is amazing that, in under two months, private companies already are developing vaccines – a process that typically takes years – with one already in the beginning trials of human testing. Yet, it may still take a year to bring a safe and effective vaccine to the public.
Businesses and community institutions can also help reduce the rapid spread of the virus. For those staying open, easy steps include encouraging people to wash their hands; ensuring access to hand sanitizer; and sanitizing work areas and tools frequently. Businesses and organizers of sporting events and concerts should think about postponing or canceling large events – if they have not already. Churches and civic clubs should discourage close-quarter contact or consider broadcasting services online. Businesses that allow telework should proactively encourage it and any schools that are still open should plan for closures.
We are better prepared today for the COVID-19 outbreak because of the lessons we learned and incorporated from previous pandemics. In June 2019, President Trump signed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act, which reauthorized public health and preparedness and response programs to give our health officials tools they need to quickly and effectively respond to an emergency. In addition, Congress substantially increased funding for key public health government agencies over the last five years. But more will still need to be done.
This is a rapidly changing situation, so check in with health officials frequently for situational updates. With all the challenges associated with a pandemic, there is no country more capable to manage a health crisis than the United States of America.
The authors are members of the GOP Doctors Caucus, which is composed of medical providers in Congress who utilize their medical expertise to develop patient-centered health care policy: Phil Roe, who represents Tennessee's First District; Andy Harris, who represents Maryland's First District; Buddy Carter, who represents Georgia's First District; Roger Marshall, who represents Kansas' First District; Scott DeJarlais, who represents Tennessee's Fourth District; Greg Murphy, who represents North Carolina's Third District; Brad Wenstrup, who represents Ohio's Second District; Brian Babin, who represents Texas' 36th District; Drew Ferguson, who represents Georgia's Third District; and John Joyce, who represents Pennsylvania's 13th District.