Sun, Feb 09, 2020 - Page 7 News List

US prepares for coronavirus pandemic that some experts now see as likely

While the disease can cause severe cases that prove fatal, many of those infected only have mild cold-like symptoms, increasing the chance that they could pass it on before they are aware of the situation

By Robert Langreth and Michelle Cortez  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Louise Ting

Just a couple of weeks ago, scientists held out hope the 2019 novel coronavirus could be largely contained within China. Now they know its spread can be minimized at best and governments are planning for the worst.

“It is not a matter of if — it is a matter of when,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior academic at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“There is not a doubt this is going to end up in most countries eventually,” Adalja said.

The US, with 12 confirmed cases so far, plans to quarantine at military bases potentially more than 1,000 Americans evacuated from China’s Hubei Province. State health departments are activating emergency programs to isolate the potentially infected — a piecemeal approach that could range from specialized facilities to hotels. Some hospitals have tents in stock to use as emergency isolation wards.

“This is about mitigation at this point and keeping the global spread as minimal as possible,” said Rebecca Katz, a professor and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.

Other countries, including the UK and France, are also pulling some of their citizens out of China.

The WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern to guide developing countries that might not have robust healthcare systems to withstand the virus.

The outbreak has made more than 31,000 people sick in at least two dozen nations. The vast majority of cases — and every death but two thus far — have been on the Chinese mainland, concentrated primarily in Hubei.

Total containment is not in the cards, said Nancy Messonnier, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“Given the nature of this virus and how it’s spreading, that would be impossible. Our goal is to slow this thing down,” she said.

Measures taken in the US have been criticized in China, where officials said that the US is stoking fear and overreacting.

The CDC has said that it has no choice.

The infection is spreading rapidly and humans have no protection against it, Messonnier said.

While most cases appear to be mild, the worry is that it will spread to a large number of people and turn deadly in those most vulnerable.

“This is an unprecedented situation and we are taking aggressive measures,” Messonnier said. “We are preparing as if this were the next pandemic.”

The CDC has developed a new test that would allow samples taken from patients to be tested locally instead of sent to CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, saving transportation time and getting results faster. The test was cleared for use by the US Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday.

In China, cases are exploding. By yesterday, more than 34,500 people in the country were infected and at least 722 had died.

Many Western researchers think the actual number of cases is many times higher. Overworked doctors at the epicenter face a shortage of testing kits and overcrowded hospitals, and cannot keep up with the number of cases.

“This is a horrible situation in China,” Messonnier said.

The agency has been trying to get a team on the ground in China, although it has not yet.

Early on at the epicenter of an epidemic, “there is a fog of war experience where it is hard to keep track of things,” said Thomas Frieden, a former CDC director who now heads Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit that works on epidemic prevention.

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