News & Politics

It's Now or Never to Get Control of the Coronavirus

Staff sell masks at a Yifeng Pharmacy in Wuhan, Chin, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Pharmacies in Wuhan are restricting customers to buying one mask at a time amid high demand and worries over an outbreak of a new coronavirus. The number of cases of the new virus has risen over 400 in China and the death toll to 9, Chinese health authorities said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

Experts are saying that the spread of the coronavirus can still be contained in the U.S. with aggressive measures designed to isolate, with affected communities and individuals taking responsibility to self-quarantine if they are exposed or infected.

The response of governments at all levels so far was planned for years ago. Few measures taken by Washington have had time to have an effect, however. Local communities have basically been on their own, which is exactly the way the CDC planned for such an outbreak. The best way to contain the coronavirus is one case at a time — isolating those affected and those who have come in contact with an infected or potentially infected person. At this level, the healthcare system is not overwhelmed and those who are sickest can receive the care they need to survive.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped the anti-Trump hysterics from trying to frighten the American people during an election year. But outbreaks of the virus have been mostly local and manageable — so far. But we are near a point where the outbreak can tip either way and only vigilance and aggressive prevention measures can keep the coronavirus from becoming a pandemic.

Tom Bossert served as homeland security adviser to President Trump from 2017 to 2018.

This virus is such a threat because it is both highly infectious and lethal, and not enough people are being tested, despite significant recent effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By the time cases are confirmed, significant community transmission has likely already occurred. This is a classic tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon. It’s also akin to looking at a star; the light we see today was emitted some time ago. But the most useful comparison now is to a fire that threatens to burn out of control. It is one we can still contain, even extinguish — if we act.

The best way to put out the fire is a vaccine, but that is over a year away. In the meantime, we must focus on reducing the height of the outbreak curve. This requires coordination and implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions. School closures, isolation of the sick, home quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework and large-gathering cancellations must be implemented before the spread of the disease in any community reaches 1 percent. After that, science tells us, these interventions become far less effective.

China’s draconian measures to get control of the virus are now being matched by Italy, which has closed down the entire northern part of the country. But the U.S. is still at a point where local efforts will make all the difference in the world. We discovered this the hard way during the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions of Americans.

Starting now, public health messaging should be framed in light of this clear objective. Community-based interventions are needed to delay the outbreak peak. On this, the 1918 flu taught us a lot. The difference between the steps taken in Philadelphia, which waited too long back then, and St. Louis, which acted quickly, is staggering. Aggressive interventions put off and ease the peak burden on hospitals and other health-care infrastructure. Ultimately, these measures can also diminish the overall number of cases and health impacts.

The U.S. is not seeing the rates of infection experienced in Italy because of these aggressive, local steps taken to contain the virus. Individual communities are taking the lead in the fight against the coronavirus, which is exactly what should be happening. As long as local health officials are successful in containing the disease within their individual jurisdictions, there’s a pretty good chance we can avoid the worst of the outbreak.