WASHINGTON (CN) – A coronavirus vaccine is still likely a year or more away, a trio of health experts told lawmakers Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean infection can’t be managed when resources are coupled with clear messaging and an organized plan from the top of the U.S. government.
Testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee, Dr. Julie Gerberding, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President George W. Bush, said she believes the outbreak can be handled effectively but people must understand where the pandemic is now in order to know where things may be going.
“We still don’t know if the cases we’re detecting represent the tip of the iceberg and how much of that iceberg is undetected because we haven’t tested, or because many patients are asymptomatic, which I suspect,” Gerberding said.
Coronavirus, a respiratory illness, is compared to influenza regularly but the two diseases are different in that coronavirus is far deadlier by comparison. Less than 1% of people who contract the flu die, but the coronavirus has killed 3.4% of those diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization.
Over 3,100 people around the world have died so far from the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. More than 93,000 cases have been positively diagnosed but the WHO reported Wednesday it believes a minimum of 50,000 people have already recovered from the illness.
But viruses can be tricky, explained Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
In Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, the epidemic was doubling nearly every week and it’s impossible to say definitively if that will be the case in the U.S. as well.
“We should presume there will be relatively rapid spread in our communities and we’re beginning to take measure to change that, but I think it could spread rapidly,” Inglesby told the House panel. “Fortunately, many cases will exhibit mild illness.”
The U.S. will learn much in the coming weeks about the contagion and how it actually functions, but in the meantime Inglesby said “social distancing measures” – like working from home, for example – should be taken more seriously where outbreaks already have occurred.
“But at some point, those measures won’t scale any further,” Inglesby said. “It will be too many people to do that. We will have to shift strategies.”
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, also appeared before House lawmakers Wednesday. Four people have tested positive for the virus in Chicago and as of late Tuesday night, at least 286 people in Illinois were under watch for developing or worsening symptoms.
Ezike said her department has been in “constant contact” with the CDC and so far, teams have been deployed to help with outbreak investigations as well as provide routine guidance and updates.
“There’s a robust collaboration. The CDC is listening to Illinois,” Ezike said.
Any hope of long-term solutions means the state must be well-funded, she said, since department employees are already working overtime and there is a dearth of facilities to house those who are quarantined or recommended for isolation.
“The [department] had to rent an RV because a motel wouldn’t agree to take one of the people who needed to be isolated,” Ezike said.
During a Wednesday morning meeting with executives from airlines including Southwest, United, American and JetBlue, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that contract medical staff have been placed in 11 airports around the U.S. and DHS has screened over 53,000 travelers so far.
Similar virus screenings, Wolf said, are also happening at the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico.
President Donald Trump commended the executives for committing to comprehensive cleanup measures for airplanes, but the president hedged when asked if he would consider any sort of specific financial support for the industry.
“Don’t ask that question please because they haven’t asked it,” Trump said to laughter. “I don’t want to give them any ideas or you’ll end up heading an airline… That’s a pretty tough question, so I don’t know. Well, they haven’t – we haven’t discussed that yet.”
The House approved an $8.3 billion spending package Wednesday to help combat the outbreak and the measure is expected to sail through the Senate on Thursday. While it provides major blocks of funding, it does not promise to shore up any one industry.
Ezike emphasized to lawmakers during Wednesday’s hearing that testing for coronavirus is imperative to stopping its spread.
A patient in Illinois was being tested for coronavirus last week, she said, and he was anxious to leave even without knowing the results because without any sick leave, both his pay for the day – and potentially his job – was at risk.
The emergency funding package also means testing – which can cost as much as $3,000 – will become more affordable.
Paramount to mitigating the public’s fear as COVID-19 spreads is having constant communication.
“You can’t communicate enough, you have to have daily reports. The hardest thing in the early phases of an outbreak is the uncertainty,” Ezike said. “People panic when they don’t know who to trust or believe.”
Businesses still need to run, medical supply chains must not be disrupted and right now, trust is the first way to avoid chaos.
“We must have credible leadership at the federal, state and local level. We must have clear and consistent communication from trusted individuals who are knowledgeable about public health, healthcare and the science of public health interventions,” Geberding, the former CDC director, said. “We need a spirit of collaboration, not combat.”