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Public Health Expert Shares Suggestions On How To Manage A Pandemic


Today the World Health Organization announced that the coronavirus is not a pandemic yet, but it does have the potential to become one. From South Korea to Iran to Italy, the number of people infected has spiked in recent days. So how concerned should Americans be? Joining us now is Dr. Michael Osterholm. He's director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Osterholm, welcome.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Thank you very much for having me.

KELLY: So you have written an op-ed for The New York Times - just out. It's headlined "Is It A Pandemic Yet?" What's your answer? What counts as a pandemic?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, let's just be clear that a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic of disease, meaning that it's occurring in many different countries around the world.

KELLY: Oh, OK. So a pandemic is just an epidemic that has spread around the world?



OSTERHOLM: It's occurring in different places. So as much as Ebola was a serious challenge with us in West Africa, that was never a pandemic. Even when the early days of the coronavirus infection in China occurred, as severe as it was, it was not a pandemic because, in fact, it was so regionalized. Early on, we thought that this was going to be like the SARS or MERS virus, two other coronaviruses where they were surely serious illnesses and had mortality rates of 10% to 25%, killing that many people. But the difference was that that virus actually didn't really transmit well in someone until they had been ill for five or six days. And we could identify people very quickly who were contacts of cases and, if they did become ill, get them into isolation or in a way that they didn't infect other people. And we could bring it to a stop. And early on...

KELLY: So for this one, do you believe that - are you on the same page as the World Health Organization?

OSTERHOLM: Well, I think...

KELLY: It has the potential but we're not quite there yet.

OSTERHOLM: Yeah, I think I'm a bit farther along and have been for a few weeks because what we know with this virus is it's transferred much like influenza, which means it is - you're infectious before you get sick. You can surely be infectious and not be clinically ill. And I think the mere fact that you've seen it now in 34 different countries - and that number is growing rapidly every day as more testing is done - that's why we think that it's really a worldwide pandemic. It's just moving quickly.

KELLY: So to the question of, is the U.S. prepared for a pandemic? - is it? And what would being prepared for a pandemic look like?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, we're in somewhat of an unusual position where we have part of our government, the CDC and the NIH, really talking about this potential for a pandemic and that it could start spreading through all of our communities, where we have other parts of the government leadership saying, no, we're going to contain it at the border, you know, we're going to wall it off. I think we have to move on and just agree that, like the rest of the world, we're going to see transmission here in the United States. We're not that prepared any more than anyone else, including the Chinese, in the sense that - where we really have the serious challenges in our health care systems. The Chinese hospitals have been overrun with cases. We've seen over 3,000 health care workers in China infected by the virus just trying to provide care and not having the adequate protection equipment available.

KELLY: So if you were...

OSTERHOLM: We have some of the same challenges here.

KELLY: If you were putting together a checklist for what we could do that would make a difference in the amount of time possible, what would be at the top of it?

OSTERHOLM: No. 1, we've got to really shore up in our health care facilities around the country, making sure we have as much protective equipment available as possible. What do we do if we have overflows of patients that need medical care? How do we protect our health care workers if they go down? We're in big trouble. That's the first start.

KELLY: Yeah. What about each of us as individuals?

OSTERHOLM: Well, the next thing is, as an individual, what we want everyone to do is start thinking about, how would I deal with this in my own family? What if my grandmother or my sister or my parents - who's going to watch out for them? Is anybody going to contact them and follow up with them if they're sick? If they do, who's going to provide care? If I'm a single mom and I have two kids that are in daycare and now I'm sick or they're sick, who's going to care for them? And so it's a time for families to really come together and say, you know, just like we prepare for hurricanes, how do we prepare for this? It says (ph), if I can't be hospitalized, I'm here to help you. This is what I'll do.

KELLY: So the key is having a plan. Dr. Michael Osterholm - he is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Thank you.

OSTERHOLM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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