Contradicting Trump, federal health officials warn of coronavirus spread
During the press conference at which he contradicted his own top health offcials about the level of preparedness for the coronavirus in the U.S., President Trump held up a map that showed the alleged level of relative preparedness in all the countries of the world. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

WASHINGTON—Presenting solid facts and contradicting GOP President Donald Trump’s rosy assurances, federal health officials are warning the country to take precautions against the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S.—and a warning signal went up just after Trump’s press conference.

Health officials stressed common-sense precautions people can take to prevent the spread of infection: Thorough hand-washing, self-quarantine—people with symptoms should stay home except for doctors’ appointments—and, if you develop symptoms, avoid crowds. So did a retired professor of internal medicine that spoke with People’s World, Dr. Gail Povar of George Washington University, whose practice included many flu and viral sufferers.

Trump previously predicted the coronavirus would run its course by mid-April, and told the press on Feb. 26 the U.S. has had “tremendous success” in containing it. But his own Centers for Disease Control director, Robert Redfield, told Congress earlier that day that “it’s prudent to assume this pathogen will be with us for some time to come.”

The coronavirus emerged late last year in China’s Hubei province, in the city of Wuhan, and has infected tens of thousands of people there. Several cities, housing tens of millions of people, have been placed under quarantine and travel restrictions to try to stop its spread.

Those lockdowns are something Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health, told Trump’s press conference the U.S. can’t unilaterally do.

But the federal Centers for Disease Control is warning state and local officials that down the road, they might have to reduce, control, or close areas where large numbers of people frequently congregate, such as schools, to reduce group exposure to people who may be infected and not know it. Coronavirus was initially thought to have a two-week incubation period, though scientists now believe it may be longer.

An illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the coronavirus. | CDC via AP

Face masks “are only of modest benefit,” but not absolutely 100% protection, said Dr. Povar. She also stressed that flu is a lot more common and deadlier in the U.S., but the precautions are the same for both. Her practice involved treating many sufferers of both the flu and of illnesses similar to the coronavirus.

The masks wear out quickly, she noted, “and there’s a need for fresh ones to be available.” Dr. Povar also cautioned against panic purchases of the masks, given their incomplete protection, and added hand sanitizers don’t help much either.

She too emphasized thorough hand-washing, but even more, “stay home when you’re sick.”

And one important measure that hasn’t been taken yet is for businesses to stop penalizing workers who get sick, from coronavirus or even from the flu.

“We should plead with employers to not punish someone who is doing something to protect others” and who contracted the coronavirus or the flu. “Don’t force someone to come to work when they’re ill” by docking their pay for being out after the workers have used up their sick leave—if they have it. Most don’t.

And 44% of workers eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, cannot afford to use it and lose their earnings, even if FMLA orders employers to give them their jobs back afterwards.

The National Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), a coalition of union-backed pro-worker state job safety and health groups, made that same point in a recent statement about dealing with the coronavirus.

“Inadequate sick leave policies are a major occupational health risk,” NACOSH Co-Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb said on Feb. 12. “Unfortunately, the U.S. lags behind most developed countries when it comes to providing time off from work—which makes it harder for workers to stay home when they are sick and stop the potential spread of a dangerous disease.”

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There are other measures people could take to minimize the risk of catching or spreading the coronavirus, Dr. Povar said. “If you do smoke, don’t. If you’re elderly and feel feverish” or feel you have flu symptoms, “contact your doctor early. And when you go to the doctor, tell the staff immediately, so they can isolate you away from others in the waiting room.”

“But we also have a lot of experience in developing anti-viral medicines, from development of medications to treat HIV and the Ebola virus,” she added. “Those medicines should be reserved for those who are the most seriously ill.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary, former drug company executive Anthony Azar, told Congress of the newest and most disturbing case of coronavirus in the U.S., in Northern California.

Unlike the other 59 U.S. cases reported so far, the stricken person was not in contact with travelers returning from China—where the coronavirus first broke out—or with people who contracted the coronavirus from those travelers. Of the other 59 U.S. cases, 40 were among people on a cruise ship that had docked in Hong Kong and was detained in Japan.

Trump also did not mention, nor did Azar, that U.S. health care facilities are testing few sufferers daily, unlike those in Italy, where Milan alone has reported more cases of coronavirus than the entire U.S.

Even as Trump declared “we’ve had tremendous, tremendous success” in containing the coronavirus in the U.S., he sought a $2.5 billion emergency appropriation to launch an effort to develop a vaccine. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., promptly proposed more than tripling the figure, to $8 billion. “We’ll take all we can get,” Trump later said.

Fauci said the money would go to developing a vaccine to combat the coronavirus. He put no time frame on when the vaccine would be available. Dr. Povar predicted it would take a year and a half—if it’s developed at all.

Developing drugs costs millions of dollars and pharmaceutical firms do not do so unless they can see a profit, she pointed out. That’s where the $2.5 billion Trump seeks would come in, as reimbursement to the firms to push them to develop anti-coronavirus vaccines.

Even then, she added, the firms could still be cautious. If the coronavirus follows the same course as the monstrous Spanish flu epidemic of 1917-18, which killed millions worldwide, all the sufferers had become ill and recovered—or not—before drug firms then could even start developing vaccines.

Another analogy would be so-called “orphan drugs.” Those are medications for illnesses with so few sufferers that for years pharmaceutical firms refused to even research potential drugs, much less produce them—at a loss. They can now seek federal subsidies to do so, under a law enacted by a Democratic-run Congress decades ago.

Food and Drug Administrator Stephen Hahn warned Congress on Feb. 26 that China presents another problem besides the coronavirus itself: Many basic ingredients for a wide range of drugs in the U.S., and some of the drugs themselves, are imported from China. Hubei alone has 44 drug factories, making pharmaceuticals or ingredients not just for vaccines, but for other medications. The coronavirus epidemic in Hubei has shut those plants for weeks, disrupting the pharmaceutical supply chain, FDA officials told lawmakers.

Meantime, the Trump response to the coronavirus has also become something of a political football, too. Trump named his vice president, Mike Pence, to chair the interagency effort about the coronavirus.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg just spent more thousands of dollars on an ad titled “pandemic,” criticizing the administration’s slow response. Radical right-wing radio propagandist Rush Limbaugh charged on his show that Democrats and Communists are conspiring to blame coronavirus on Trump.

And in the last televised Democratic hopefuls’ debate, in Charleston, S.C., former Vice President Joe Biden declared “We increased the budget for NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and he (Trump) has wiped all that out. We also set up an office to stop Ebola and deal with pandemics.” Trump’s budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 proposes 9% cuts for each NIH institute.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.