Health Care

Can We Please Be Sober-Minded about the Coronavirus?

An employee wearing protective gear sprays disinfectant to sanitize a tube train over coronavirus fears in Tbilisi, Georgia, March 2, 2020. (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)

From one week to the next, the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, went from a supposedly contained outbreak to a potential pandemic.

While the virus was spreading through East Asia to the Middle East and Western Europe, World Health Organization officials lauded the Chinese government’s “extraordinary” efforts to contain the epidemic. Now, South Korea has confirmed over 4,000 cases, airlines have suspended travel to Milan, the vice president of Iran has contracted the virus, and a senior Iranian official died from it.

American officials got off to an inauspicious start in addressing the crisis, with diagnostic tests initially limited to some 100 public-health labs. After the Food and Drug Administration expanded testing to other qualified labs, many reported inconclusive results from official diagnostic kits. A University of California–Berkeley lab was barred from testing a patient who did not meet the Centers for Disease Control criteria, which allowed testing only on patients who had traveled to China within two weeks of developing symptoms. That patient later tested positive. The FDA finally expanded diagnostic capabilities on February 29, but not before more than 70 cases had been confirmed in the U.S.

While federal agencies grappled with byzantine testing regulations, the White House delivered overly optimistic assurances to try to assuage panicked investors. The president himself said we had it “totally under control,” even as the CDC warned Americans to brace for domestic outbreaks.

The White House’s messaging did not fool investors. Stocks plummeted more than ten percent into “correction” territory, and banks slashed their U.S. economic-growth projections to zero for the second quarter. The sell-off receded slightly Monday after the Federal Reserve indicated it would cut interest rates — a welcome move — yet uncertainty persists as the number of cases in the U.S. grows.

The coronavirus may not prove as threatening as first feared, but one way to ensure that it isn’t is for American officials to take it seriously. Foolish happy talk aside, the administration has, by and large, acted appropriately. The targeted travel restrictions can at least slow the influx of infected people while researchers work to develop treatments and vaccines. In addition to providing resources to those researchers and streamlining the testing process, federal agencies should promptly disseminate the number of cases and work with localities to quarantine patients as warranted.

To hear the Democrats tell it, Trump has already stumbled into a debacle. They’ve hit him for alleged cuts to the CDC, but Congress has in fact increased funding to the agency during Trump’s presidency. The cool-headed analysts at the New York Times also chimed in. Readers of Gail Collins — who titled a column “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus” — can be forgiven for thinking the president concocted the virus in the West Wing. Paul Krugman absurdly said Trump’s fear of “scary brown people” left the government ill-prepared to combat the crisis.

We know it’s too much to ask that the president be sober-minded and judicious in his public statements, and that the press and opposition tone down their opportunism and hysteria, but it’s what the public deserves.


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