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Preparing for the coronavirus crisis

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WORLD Radio - Preparing for the coronavirus crisis


NICK EICHER: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: preparing for the coronavirus.

People in Wuhan, China first got sick with COVID-19 in early December. 

Within three months and with the exception of Antarctica, it has now spread to every continent on the planet. Countries in the Middle East and Europe are working to contain the coronavirus as patients overwhelm emergency rooms. 

And the United States seems to be on the cusp of its own outbreak.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: We mentioned the numbers a few minutes ago, and the death toll is still relatively low in the United States. 

Still, several states declared a public health emergency over the last week as efforts ramp up to contain the virus. Others have temporarily closed schools and canceled major events. Those developments have people asking: Is the U.S. healthcare system ready to handle a widespread outbreak? WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: U.S. health officials issued a somber warning last week: It’s time to prepare for COVID-19’s advance in the United States.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier directs the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MESSONNIER: Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country.  It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of how many people in this country will have severe illness.

Messonnier said schools, businesses, and hospitals should prepare for disruption as health officials work to limit the disease’s reach. 

In response to COVID-19’s growing global threat, last week, the Trump administration asked Congress for additional funding. $2.5 billion to combat and contain the virus’s spread. 

The money will help expand public health surveillance systems, fund testing for the virus, back the development of a vaccine, and ensure healthcare workers have enough supplies to manage the outbreak. 

Even so, President Trump came under fire from some Democrats for not preparing sooner for the coronavirus. 

But Dr. Messonnier says the CDC has been preparing for an outbreak like this for years

MESSONNIER: In the last two years, CDC has engaged in two pandemic influenza exercises that have required us to prepare for a severe pandemic and just this past year we had a whole of government exercise practicing similarly around a pandemic of influenza. Right now CDC is operationalizing all of its pandemic response plans, working on multiple fronts including specific measures to prepare communities to respond to local transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

And according to a recent Johns Hopkins study, the United States is more ready to deal with an outbreak than almost any other country.

The study examined the ability of nearly 200 countries across six categories to handle a pandemic. The United States ranked in the top nine. 

Dr. Amesh Adalja is with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Global Health Security. 

ADALJA: I think the United States is very well prepared. One of the best countries prepared for an infectious disease emergency. However, there are going to be gaps and there are always going to be some disruption that occurs when this virus, uh, uh, begins in earnest in this country.

One of those potential gaps could be a shortage of medical masks needed to protect healthcare workers. 

The United States has stockpiled nearly 45 million masks. Still health officials would like an additional 300 million.  

But China is the world’s largest producer of medical masks. And with domestic demand high there, that doesn’t leave a lot of surplus for other countries. 

ADALJA: That may put supply pressure on, on the supply of masks and that may become more crucial as we get further into this a pandemic.

With that in mind, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a stern warning to Americans over the weekend: Stop buying masks. 

Another concern could be a shortage of hospital beds. Hospital stays have gotten shorter over the last few decades, so the number of beds available in the United States has actually decreased. 

That has some small rural hospitals worried. Brock Slabach is the senior vice president for the National Rural Health Association. Slabach says rural hospitals rely on sending patients with serious diseases to much larger urban facilities. 

But if city hospitals fill up, that could strain a rural hospital’s ability to provide long-term, specialized care. 

SLABACH: Where we fall short is in our area of available workforce and in the area of possibly having enough technology, for example, ventilators to care for patients. And do we have enough medications to be able to take care of the patients that are that are in our beds adequately. 

Still, Slabach says, in order to qualify for federal funds, hospitals are required to have two emergency drills a year. So many rural hospitals do have emergency management plans in place. 

Healthcare officials have also raised concerns about the availability of COVID-19 test kits and the CDC’s capacity to process a growing number of tests. So, on Thursday, the CDC freed up state public health labs to conduct their own coronavirus testing. 

And, yesterday, the FDA also reported the first U-S drug shortage because COVID-19 is causing supply chain disruptions in China. The FDA didn’t say how severe the shortage is.

Dr. David Stevens is the CEO Emeritus of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations. He says even though the U.S. health system is largely prepared, people are still fearful. And that can create openings for meaningful conversations. 

STEVENS: You can have fear to panic in the midst of an epidemic. And I think as Christians we have a tremendous opportunity to show where we put our trust when everybody else is so fearful.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, accompanied by members of the coronavirus task force, meet with pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Monday, March 2, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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