EXCLUSIVE: Senior CDC official warns New York coronavirus epidemic is just a glimpse


US health officials deeply concerned that the coronavirus epidemic that has swamped New York hospitals in recent days is just the first in a wave of local epidemics likely to hit cities across the country over the next few weeks.
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Anne Schuchat, Senior Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said her agency is seeing the first signs that the number of cases in other cities is already starting to increase. While New York is currently home to almost half of the cases in the country, other cities are seeing their numbers increase at an alarming rate.

“We are looking at our syndromic data on the flu, our respiratory illnesses that come to the emergency room. Across the country, there are a number of areas that are intensifying. The numbers in New York are so large that they appear, but we are looking at increases over time and we do see them in a number of places. It would be surprising to me from what I have seen on how this virus spreads if it is not going to increase in many other parts of the country, “said Schuchat.

The CDC has deployed approximately 1,500 of its epidemiologists, scientists and experts to hot spots across the country, including the New York and Seattle area, where the first US cases of coronavirus appeared in January and early February. Now, according to Schuchat, the CDC has sent teams to Louisiana, Wisconsin and Colorado, among others.

Schuchat refused to name the cities likely to become the epicentres of worrying new outbreaks, but New Orleans has stood out in recent days for the rapid growth of cases it has seen. Louisiana reported its first case of coronavirus on March 9; he passed 100 cases a week later. Its number of cases doubled between Sunday and Wednesday, when the state reported nearly 1,800 cases.

Governor John Bel Edwards (D) said Tuesday that the rate of growth in the number of confirmed cases in Louisiana was comparable to that of countries like Italy and Spain, two of the hardest hit countries in Europe where health systems are quickly overwhelmed and doctors have to make heartbreaking decisions about rationing care.

Colorado reported nearly 1,000 coronavirus cases on Thursday, twice as many as it confirmed on Sunday. Wisconsin’s workload dropped from 385 Sunday to 585 Thursday.

With New York hard hit, with some 30,000 confirmed cases, the epidemic is spreading more widely. New Jersey has reported more than 4,400 cases. California, Michigan and Washington have all confirmed more than 2,000 cases, and Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have all recorded more than 1,000 cases, according to state health laboratories compiled by The COVID Tracking Project, a group led by journalist Alexis Madrigal.

The CDC uses one of its most reliable indicators to provide early indications of the source of future epidemics. A surveillance system designed to detect sudden increases in patients reporting flu-like symptoms in emergency rooms across the country, which has been integrated over the decades into an almost real-time data system has been the first alarm bell in New York. It turned out that those who reported flu-like symptoms were instead victims of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Now the same surveillance system is flashing red in many states, a potential sign that coronavirus patients are already visiting hospitals, even if their symptoms are not severe enough to warrant overnight stays.

“There are only dozens of places we look at,” said Schuchat. “We really have to expect the whole country to be at risk here, and we have to look at our whole health care system in every jurisdiction to make it as strong as possible.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNorth Korea calls for help, while denying coronavirus cases: Iranian official says Tehran has “no knowledge” of the fate of American hostages. Unemployment claims rise to 3.2 millions as the coronavirus devastates the economy PLUS suggested he wanted to reopen the US economy and return to something closer to normal life in the coming weeks, against the advice of medical experts inside and outside his administration. Schuchat said ending the social distancing practices that have not yet started to have an impact on slowing the spread of the virus would have devastating consequences.

“Everything I see today suggests to me that we have to take this virus very seriously and that we have to be absolutely sure that our health care system in various geographic regions is prepared for an increased load and that we have good systems to detect, track, isolate and reduce the spread of new continuous cases. I would therefore be very reluctant to abandon the measures across the country. There are probably areas where the virus has not yet arrived in force, but where the health system must prepare for it, “said Schuchat.

“I think what we are seeing in New York and New York right now is a real warning to other regions about what can happen or what can already start happening, and these efforts to ensure that our health care system is ready and that we can protect the most vulnerable before relaxing the social measures that are in place, “she said. “The measures are meant to be used in stages, and some of them may be simplified. But as I speak to colleagues around the world who are facing different stages of this epidemic, I think we are all trying to make sure that we have the best information on how to calm down and also minimize the unintended consequences, negative effects consequences of the mitigation effort. ”

The CDC was the first federal agency to raise serious alarms about the coronavirus as it spread, first from an epicenter in Wuhan, China, to other Asian countries and inevitably to the United States. The agency surprised the Trump administration by surprise in February when a senior official warned at a press conference about the serious disruption of American life. And CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield has been absent from some of the White House briefings in recent days, raising questions as to whether the world’s most qualified and important public health institution had been shelved in times of extreme crisis.

But Schuchat said the CDC remains at the heart of the federal response, working alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency while it is the National Center for the Coordination of Interventions. Redfield, she said, had returned to Atlanta for a few days to catch up with the executives.

“Dr. Redfield is part of the White House task force and the nonstop briefing. He had come back to Atlanta for a little while because there was a lot going on here and he was reconnecting with the staff, but he’s back in D.C. in full-time response mode, “said Schuchat. “We are very involved in the response. Dr. Redfield does absolutely that full time. ”

She acknowledged that the response to the coronavirus has become tinged with politics in a way that other epidemics have not, depending on a highly polarized time when even non-partisan institutions are drawn into partisan feuds. She said keeping the CDC out of the fray is important to the long-term health of the country.

“I have worked for the CDC for 32 years now, and I have worked in all jurisdictions since 1988. Politicization is not helpful. It is a battle against a virus, and it is a virus that we must absolutely take seriously, and I think today is more evident than ever for politicians and the public. The CDC is a data-driven, science-based organization that serves the public and works with all of the jurisdictions present. It is essential to me that the best science is brought to policy makers and that we remember that we are all in the same boat, ”said Schuchat.

Some public health experts have criticized the Trump administration – and even public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases – for minimizing the risk of coronavirus during its spread in January and February. Rather, Schuchat pointed to China, which it said had simultaneously contained the spread of the virus through an unprecedented lockdown and had not been completely transparent with information about the severity of the virus, information that could have prompted United States to act faster. .

“It’s easy to look back and think of things that could be done differently. Were we completely aware of what was going to happen? But I think most of us are focused on the future.

“In my experience, it is very important to be humble in the face of emerging infections and certainly in the face of pandemics. Something that looks like the best idea may go differently than you expect, and things that you think work well may not turn out. We think it is very important to have an open mind, plan various scenarios, plan for the worst and work backwards from that, “she said.

“The emergence in China and the intense response they received was impressive, but not as visible as we might have hoped. But I can say that other countries that are probably looking to the United States would probably want to understand more of what’s going on here. It can be difficult when you answer something like that to have all the information and really know everything you want. ”


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