The US government has taken a long time to understand the amount of coronavirus that is spreading from Europe, which has helped speed up epidemics across the country, a senior health official said Friday.
Limited testing and delayed travel alerts for regions outside of China contributed to the increase in the number of cases in the United States from late February, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, No. 2 head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States.
“We have clearly not recognized all of the imports in progress,” Schuchat told The Associated Press.
The coronavirus was first reported at the end of last year in China, the initial epicenter of the global pandemic. But the United States has since become the most affected nation, with about a third of the world’s reported cases and more than a quarter of the deaths.
On Friday, the CDC published an article, written by Schuchat, that returned to the US response, summarizing some of the main decisions and events of the past few months. This suggests that the country’s main public health agency has missed opportunities to slow the spread. Some public health experts saw it as an important assessment by one of the country’s most respected public health physicians.
The CDC is responsible for the recognition, monitoring and prevention of such a disease. But the agency had a low profile during this pandemic, with White House officials controlling communications and running most of the press briefings.
“The degree of decline in the CDC’s public presence … is one of the most striking and frankly confusing aspects of the federal government’s response,” said Jason Schwartz, assistant professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly celebrated a federal decision, announced on January 31, to ban the entry of any foreign national who has visited China in the past 14 days. This took effect on February 2. China had imposed its own travel restrictions earlier, and travel outside of its outbreak areas has actually dropped dramatically.
But in his article, Schuchat noted that nearly 2 million travelers arrived in the United States from Italy and other European countries in February. The United States government did not block travel from there until March 11.
“The many trips from Europe, once Europe experienced epidemics, really accelerated our imports and their rapid spread,” she told the AP. “I think the time for our travel alerts should have been earlier. “
She also noted in the article that more than 100 people who had participated in nine separate Nile cruises in February and early March had come to the United States and tested positive for the virus, almost doubling the number of American cases. known at that time.
The article is carefully written, but Schwartz saw it as a notable departure from the White House account.
“This report appears to challenge the idea that the travel ban to China in late January has helped change the course of this pandemic in the United States,” he said.
In the article, Schuchat also noted the explosive effect of some mass rallies in late February, including a scientific meeting in Boston, the celebration of Mardis Gras in New Orleans, and funerals in Albany, Georgia. The rallies spawned numerous cases and led to decisions in mid-March to restrict the crowd.
Asked about it during the interview, Schuchat said: “I think that in retrospect, acting earlier could have delayed the amplification (of the epidemic in the United States) or delayed its speed.”
But she also noted that there is a growing public awareness of how bad things are, as well as a change in the type of measures – including home orders – that people are willing to accept.
“I think people are more likely to accept mitigation once they see the harm the virus can do,” she said. “There will be debates about whether we started much earlier or whether we went too far too quickly. “
Schuchat’s article still leaves many questions unanswered, said Dr. Howard Markel, a public health historian at the University of Michigan.
He does not reveal what type of proposals were made, and perhaps ignored, during the critical period before the start of US business in late February, he said.
“I want to know … the conversations, the memos to presidential decrees,” said Markel, who has written history books on past pandemics. “Because I still believe it didn’t have to be as bad as it turned out. “
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