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U.S. Needs To Lead Coronavirus Coordination, Expert Says


So are we prepared if the coronavirus spreads through communities in our country? And as President Trump crafts his government's response, are there lessons from previous outbreaks and previous presidents? We have someone here with some experience - a lot of it, actually. Dr. Dennis Carroll was a senior infectious disease adviser at the Centers for Disease Control. He went on to track the roots of viral outbreaks while leading a program at USAID. Dr. Carroll, welcome.

DENNIS CARROLL: Good morning.

GREENE: So are we ready if this gets worse.

CARROLL: The answer is no. I think we can see from news reports the shortages in diagnostic kits, the confusion on how to best handle the spread of this virus and even the communications about to what extent this virus is likely to spread through this country have left, I think, us ill-prepared to deal with the events that are unfolding.

GREENE: Well, let's - let me talk to you about some of the things you said. I mean, communication - I think about the CDC - I mean, they've been having, like, daily press briefings describing to the American people what's happening here. So what exactly concerns you? And what more do you want to see?

CARROLL: Well, Centers for Disease Control clearly understands the situation. And they've been, I think, very clear in terms of highlighting the risks and vulnerabilities we have. It's really at the political leadership where we're finding confusion. And it's at this link between the leadership and the technical experts within the public health community that I think is sowing more confusion within the general public.

GREENE: So your concern is the messaging from the president and the administration confusing the general public. What exactly do you think President Trump should be doing differently here?

CARROLL: Well, first and foremost, you know, we've had, you know, two months since this virus was first identified in China. And it's given us two months to really be thinking clearly about how we as a nation need to be prepared and to be able to, you know, create a clear message about what we need to do. So it's not just what we say now. It's how we've lost the last two months in preparing for this particular situation. Right now, we've heard from the president - sort of a casual sense as to what we are facing. And he's not really providing the kind of leadership that we've seen in past events of this kind. And it's a marked difference between how this administration is responding to this current threat and what we've seen from previous administrations, certainly in my experience over the last 15 years.

GREENE: Well, I think about President Obama. I mean, he got some criticism for his government's response to H1N1 - people saying that vaccines were just not developed quickly enough. Is what you're seeing from President Trump in line with that? Or is there something more concerning to you?

CARROLL: Well, I think both President Obama and President George W. Bush - you know, they were both faced with events similar to this. And 2005 was the emergent avian influenza scare. And in 2009 and then 2014, we had both the H1N1 pandemic virus. And we had the Ebola. I think what we've seen both with President Bush and President Obama was, first and foremost, at the senior-most level - at their level - recognizing the severity of this risk and the importance of bringing all aspects of the United States government to bear on this early and really signaling to the American public their commitment towards making sure that both our domestic needs would be met and our role as a global leader would be met.

GREENE: I mean, President Trump says that his government is on this. I mean, the CDC is on it. He's appointed Vice President Pence to lead the government effort. What specifically are you not seeing from this administration that you want to be seeing?

CARROLL: Well, I mean, news reports that have come out just in the past couple of days indicate that there is a failure of command and control or leadership. We have reports of unprotected health and human services professionals greeting the returnees from Wuhan, China.

GREENE: This is a whistleblower complaint that NPR, I know, has not confirmed. But that's what you're referring to here.

CARROLL: That's what I'm referring to. And in that situation, having frontline workers exposing themselves unprotected is just unconscionable. And that they then get back on planes and spread around the world - you know, spread around the United States. We also have the situation where we don't have adequate supplies of diagnostics. We have reports coming out of California where there's been the one reported - what appears to be a locally transmitted case of this virus. And the state of California is following 8,000 people. But they only have 200 kits to be able to diagnose whether or not they're infected or not.

GREENE: I was at dinner last night, and friends kept asking me, you talk to experts - is there anything we as citizens can be doing to prepare right now? And in the few seconds we have left, any one piece of advice?

CARROLL: Well, first off, don't panic. You know, this is a virus that has - it has features that allow us to know we can protect ourselves - good hygiene, washing hands and making sure we avoid large gatherings of people. And also, pay attention. Listen to what Centers for Disease Control is saying and follow their guidance.

GREENE: Dr. Dennis Carroll was senior infectious disease adviser at the CDC. Thank you so much.

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

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