Trump’s former homeland security adviser warns us: Coronavirus could become a "fire out of control"

Why aggressive action against the coronavirus must be taken as soon as possible in the U.S.

Published March 11, 2020 8:00AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

According to data from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, the coronavirus epidemic had killed at least 4,088 people worldwide as of Tuesday morning, March 10 — including over 3,000 in Mainland China, 463 in Italy, 291 in Iran, 54 in South Korea and 23 in the United States. Health officials fear that the situation in the U.S. could become much worse. And in an op-ed for the Washington Post, Tom Bossert (who served as a homeland security adviser to President Donald Trump in 2017 and 2018) warns that the U.S. needs to take very aggressive steps to make sure that coronavirus doesn't get out of control.

"The near-term objective should be to reduce the acute, exponential growth of the outbreak in order to reduce suffering and the strain on our health-care system," Bossert explains. "That will require significant effort, but it can work, as we have seen: Hong Kong and Singapore have achieved linear growth of covid-19 cases, staving off the terrifying exponential upward curve confronting Italy and pushing both the infection rate down and new cases out on the timeline. The United States needs to take note."

Bossert stresses that not nearly enough coronavirus testing is taking place in the U.S.

"This virus is such a threat because it is both highly infectious and lethal — and not enough people are being tested, despite significant recent effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Bossert explains. "By the time cases are  confirmed, significant community transmission has likely already occurred. This is a classic tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon. It's also akin to looking at a star; the light we see today was emitted some time ago. But the most useful comparison now is to a fire that threatens to burn out of control. It is one we can still contain, even extinguish — if we act."

Bossert laments that because a coronavirus vaccine "is over a year away," the U.S. must "focus on reducing the height of the outbreak curve" — which "requires coordination and implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions."

"School closures, isolation of the sick, home quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework and large-gathering cancellations must be implemented before the spread of the disease in any community reaches 1%," Bossert advises. "After that, science tells us, these interventions become far less effective."

When it comes to a health threat like coronavirus, Bossert points out, "time matters."

"Two weeks of delay can mean the difference between success and failure," Bossert asserts. "Public health experts learned this in 1918, when the Spanish flu killed 50 million to 100 million people around the globe. If we fail to take action, we will watch our health care system be overwhelmed."

Bossert cites Italy as a tragic example of how quickly coronavirus can spread: on February 20, Italy had only three reported cases of coronavirus and "no known deaths" from it; on March 9 — less than a month later — Italy had "more than 9100 cases and 460 dead."

The lesson for the U.S. is that aggressive action against coronavirus must be taken ASAP.

"The United States and other liberal societies must mount a significant, coordinated response with public buy-in," Bossert emphasizes. "Panic must, of course, be avoided. Most people who become infected are likely to get what feels like a mild case of seasonal flu. Many will not develop symptoms. But the elderly and otherwise infirm are at risk, and the number of Americans likely to be hospitalized and the subset of those who will require some form of critical care could still be significant. The rates will be worse if the disease is not aggressively countered early."

By Alex Henderson

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