Around the middle of February we noted with some relief that “novel coronavirus pneumonia,” commonly called “coronavirus,” hadn’t yet become a major problem in the United States.
It still hasn’t. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the nation on Tuesday that it’s not a question of if the virus would spread in the United States, but when.
As the possibility of a global pandemic increases, it’s important for us to reassess as needed, to be aware and informed, and most of all, to be as prepared as we can be. We should avoid both panic and complacency.
Coronavirus has spread precipitously in other parts of the world outside of China, its point of origin. More than 83,000 people around the globe have been sickened by it in at least 56 countries by late Friday, including an expanding number in European nations like Germany and Spain. In most cases, the virus has been mild. But in nearly 3,000 cases, it’s proved to be deadly.
More than 60 cases have now been reported in the U.S., including an incident in California that seems unrelated to foreign travel — which means it’s spreading.
No cases have yet been reported in North Carolina, but if the CDC warning is accurate, there will be. “It’s a good time in North Carolina, when the risk is low, to look ahead and be prepared …” Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, state health director and chief medical officer with the state Department of Health and Human Services, said on Wednesday.
In the meantime, we can take reasonable steps to prevent possible infection. Just as with the flu, the most practical step is to wash our hands frequently to avoid spreading germs. It’s also wise, if one feels sick, to go immediately to a doctor; and, if infected, to stay at home to avoid spreading the virus. Surgical masks do little to prevent acquiring the virus, but they may prevent sufferers from spreading it.
The National Institutes of Health is working on a vaccine, but its availability is likely to be months away at the earliest.
It would also be wise to avoid traveling to foreign countries right now. Elon University has suspended a study abroad program in Florence, and Wake Forest and Winston-Salem State universities are monitoring the virus to see if they need to suspend their overseas programs.
Some low-wage workers won’t have the luxury of staying home if they get sick — both their employers and their budgets will demand their presence, which puts the rest of us as risk. That rip in our current economic system’s fabric is troublesome.
On Wednesday, President Trump addressed the nation on the virus, contradicting his own administration’s medical officials to downplay the threat. Though we appreciate that he hasn’t encouraged panic — that would probably be worse — it’s difficult to trust a source who so often speaks in exaggerations and falsehoods. It’s also disturbing that, judging from his initial tweets and public statements, he seemed more concerned about the virus’ impact on the stock market and his reelection campaign than with the health of the American people.
His administration’s elimination of the National Security Council’s pandemic response team in 2018, as well as cuts to the CDC budget over the past two years, are also troublesome. Medical professionals with institutional knowledge and expertise can’t be hired on the fly. They should be retained and prepared for times like this, which usually arise with little warning.
Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would coordinate his administration’s response to the virus, and on Thursday, we learned that government health officials and scientists would be required to direct all statements and public appearances through Pence’s office. That creates a problem for an administration that already lacks credibility — and for the public. To increase confidence and transparency, the administration should release all restrictions on information and allow medical experts to speak when they think it’s warranted.
We should all be aware that no walls, no travel bans, will adequately guard against problems like this — nor would turning our back on the rest of the world in times of crisis make us great. “The indispensable nation” has a responsibility to help when and where we can.