Other’s opinion: COVID-19: Prepare now for the inevitable

Published 7:01 am Friday, February 28, 2020

The Free Press, Mankato

A popular sports broadcaster used to intone over the highlights: You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.

Containment — sometimes via drastic measures — has failed thus far to stop the COVID-19 virus. China attempted to seal off a city of 11 million people. Didn’t work. Japan put an entire cruise ship under quarantine. The infection spread anyway.

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The past few days have seen significant outbreaks in Italy, Iran and South Korea. Crucially, some of the new clusters do not appear to be directly tied, for the first time, to the Chinese epicenter of the outbreak — an indication that the virus is breaking out globally.

The Trump administration gives every appearance of dangerous naivety about the outbreak, even as financial markets tremble. On Tuesday, as an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an outbreak of COVID-19 on these shores inevitable — not if it comes, but when and how severely — the president’s top economic advisor claimed: “We have contained this. I won’t say air-tight, but it’s pretty close to air-tight.”

When it comes to forecasting the process of COVID-19, we’ll side with the expert on communicative diseases over the former TV talking head. The United States cannot be hermetically sealed against this or any other virus.

It’s coming. And while the White House is sending out mixed messages — and Lord only knows what ill-informed impulses are percolating in the president’s brain — there are things the general public can, and should, do to prepare.

We can reduce the risk of infection: by regularly washing our hands, by staying home if sick, by getting the flu shot to reduce overcrowding at hospitals and clinics. Such common sense sanitation measures will mitigate the spread of this virus (and others). They won’t stop it.

Public officials may have to limit large gatherings when cases are identified in a particular locality. Such restrictions are anathema to a free society, but sometimes public health must be the overriding consideration.

What we can’t do is rely on the rapid development of a vaccine, which will take at least a year to develop and test. It will also take a significant investment, something neither the pharmaceutical companies nor the Trump Administration seems interested in. (Trump’s recently released budget plan calls for sharp cuts to the CDC.) That will have to change.