As the number of new coronavirus cases begins to decline in China, there are new fears that Europe may emerge as a center of the global pandemic. Outbreaks in Italy, Spain and Germany led President Donald Trump to announce new restrictions on visitors from 26 European countries (except the UK), for the next month. The limits, which take effect on Friday at midnight, don’t include US citizens, although they could be subject to enhanced airport screening. “This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump said during an Oval Office address Wednesday night.
Trump’s decision was sparked by an alarming rise in European coronavirus cases. In Italy, the government on Wednesday reported 200 new deaths for a total of 827 fatalities. with 12,462 patients testing positive for Covid-19. Because of a shortage of both hospital beds and ventilation equipment, Italian health care workers are applying wartime triage protocols and making tough moral decisions about which patients will receive care and which ones will be allowed to die.
The United Kingdom had its biggest one-day rise in cases this week, with a total of 460 coronavirus cases, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Wednesday that two-thirds of her nation could be infected before the disease subsides. “Given a virus for which there is no immunity and no immunization, we have to understand that many people will be infected,” Merkel said at a news conference. “The consensus among experts is that 60 to 70 percent of the population will be infected.”
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On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a “pandemic” and urged countries to get serious about stopping its spread. “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday at a press conference.
It appears that Tedros’ message was aimed at the lackluster US response, which until this week has been slow to ramp up both testing and social distancing. Now, some public health experts say they are skeptical that Trump’s European travel ban will contain the spread of the novel coronavirus here in the United States. That’s because the virus is already passing from person to person through what’s called “community spread,” and many social distancing measures are just now being put in place, weeks after the virus was already detected in most US states.
The US has recorded 1,323 Covid-19 cases as of Thursday morning, with 38 confirmed deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center map, which tallies numbers from the CDC as well as local media reports.
“I think we are focusing on the wrong things right now,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, senior scholar at the Center for Global Health Security at Johns Hopkins University and associate professor of epidemiology. “We have 40 states reporting cases, and the majority are local transmission. It’s not a bad idea to postpone travel because of the chaos and uncertainty of government response. But I don’t think travel restrictions are our way out of this right now given that we have so much transmission in the United States.”
Nuzzo says Trump’s January 31 ban on travelers from China may have lulled public health officials (and the public) into a false sense of complacency. “Thinking we could keep the virus out of the US through travel bans prevented us from taking the urgent steps to address the spread of the virus in our country,” Nuzzo added. “We haven’t adequately protected the elderly and people with underlying health conditions, who we know are at greatest risk of severe illness and death.”
Making things worse, experts say that expanded screening protocols at US airports might divert CDC personnel from assisting state and local health officials. “CDC personnel are a finite resource and we are splitting our efforts,” says Julie Fischer, a professor of microbiology at Georgetown University who studies community preparedness for emerging diseases. “At the time that we need as many experts as we can from the CDC providing scientific expertise, many are dedicated to the quarantine.”
In addition to airport screenings, CDC officials are also deployed to handle quarantines of the 2,400 cruise ship passengers from the Grand Princess that have been sent to military bases in California and Texas. Fischer feels that these health experts could be better put to use trying to halt the domestic spread of the virus.
CDC officials did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Meanwhile, Nuzzo says the number of people infected in the United States is much higher than reported by the CDC and local health officials. “It’s highly likely that there are a lot of cases out there that we haven’t found,” Nuzzo said. “We have insufficient testing capabilities right now. We don’t have the surveillance systems we need. We could be doing specialized studies to estimate how many people are likely infected. We haven’t done that yet.”
In Brussels, a pair of European Union officials blasted Trump’s decision as short-sighted and said they received no warning about the announcement. “The Coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” read the statement posted on the website of the E.U. Commission, co-signed by E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and E.U. Council President Charles Michel. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
While American citizens may not be banned from returning home from Europe, they will have a tough time heading to South America. Officials in Argentina, Peru and Colombia have announced mandatory two-week quarantines for anyone arriving from the US and seven other virus-hit countries.
And even domestically, it’s going to be hard for Americans to go much of anywhere. What started as a trickle of a few businesses and schools closing has now become a torrent of event cancellations. The NBA finally canceled the remainder of its season Wednesday after a player tested positive for coronavirus, while professional hockey and soccer leagues are following suit on Thursday. Officials in Seattle, San Francisco and the entire state of Oregon have banned large gatherings. City leaders in Austin cancelled March events for South by Southwest, while organizers for California’s Coachella music festival postponed their event to October at the urging of local health and county authorities. Houston officials cancelled the city’s rodeo, while those from New York City, Boston, Chicago and many others have called off St. Patrick’s Day parades.
Public health experts say they hope the American public is finally getting the message that the coronavirus is a serious threat, and that they should stay home and avoid contact with crowds, whether its at a local basketball game, a spring break trip to Paris or a political rally. Until that happens, it’s likely the number of Americans testing positive for the virus will keep rising.
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