Coronavirus is Causing Panic but Not Lawlessness
In the U.S., transmission is likely already far wider than the ninety publicly confirmed cases
In a Twilight Zone–like drama spawned by eerie uncertainty, the world is shutting down a bit more each day, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates across sixty countries on six continents—all in just nine weeks. There’s no longer an illusion that the contagion can be contained. And this is only the beginning. Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist and the director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, estimated that between 40 percent and 70 percent of the world’s roughly five billion adults will get the virus, which was first reported in China in late December.
The United States reached a turning point over the weekend, as cases of the sickness—initially isolated in California, Oregon, and Washington State, on the West Coast—were confirmed in Illinois, in the Midwest, New York, Rhode Island, and Florida, on the East Coast. (On Monday, four new coronavirus deaths were announced in Washington state, bringing the total to six.) For Americans, the problem is no longer stemming the tide of a foreign pathogen. “The emphasis has shifted—from stopping them from infecting usto stopping us from infecting each other,” Lipsitch said. “There is no American exceptionalism in exposure to coronavirus.”
In the United States, transmission is likely already far, far wider than the 90 publicly confirmed cases on Monday because of U.S. officials’ failure to do sufficient testing. “We haven’t found hundreds or thousands of cases because we’re not looking hard enough,” Lipsitch said. “We don’t have the testing capacity to find out what’s going on. We’ve looked largely at people who had a relation to China or high-risk areas.” That’s too low, he said, by several factors of ten. He called the initial U.S. response “utterly inadequate.” Lipsitch told me that the Chinese government’s response in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, was more thorough than the approach taken so far in the U.S. by the Trump Administration. In Guangdong province, Chinese health officials tested more than three hundred thousand patients in so-called fever clinics, where people who think they have a fever of any origin are seen. In contrast, the U.S. has been testing a handful of isolated cases. “Our government’s response was something like one per cent—or less—than what China did,” Lipsitch said.
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