Battle may be in new phase against the virus now named Covid19

covid19-300x210The spreading virus that has sickened tens of thousands and killed thousands — mostly in central China in Hubei province and its big capital city, Wuhan — now has a name: Covid19.

Public health officials hope that this moniker, along with new images of the virus, will make talking about this disease easier and reduce the exploding stigma that’s attaching to it, with mis- and dis-information fueling unwelcome panic, racism, and xenophobia.

The disease continues to batter China, with the cases in two dozen or so other countries limited to a few hundred and deaths in the single digits. The Chinese remain in a sweeping lockdown or quarantine that has brought much of the most populous nation in the world to a standstill since at least the start of the lunar new year, a major travel holiday across Asia. Officials now also are conducting dragnets and round-ups of those potentially ill.

Data on the Covid19 outbreak in China, especially the number of infections, severity of cases, and even when the outbreak began, continues to be murky and controversial. The big figures fluctuate almost by the day, including because of the way Chinese experts handling the epidemic determine who is sick, for how long, and how they may have gotten ill. News reports say that the authoritarian Chinese government has been overwhelmed by the number of ailing patients. Caregivers in China themselves have suffered due to the disease, with thousands infected and a handful dying. Communist Party bigshots have been ousted and shuffled.

The battle against Covid19 also may be entering a new phase: The virus may be not just a spiking phenomenon but yet another sustained scourge for health officials and the public to deal with in appropriate fashion, including with prevention and vaccines. And experts and government leaders are raising major questions as to whether the efforts to contain this disease have hit their limits.

This is partly because respiratory bugs that Covid19 likely is related to have peak infection periods and the beleaguered people in central China may have been kept in place for a crucial time for this disease. That’s why public health officials are keeping tight watch on daily counts of new infections to see if and when they crest and begin to decline.

Experts also are taking note of one of the viral outbreak’s odd concentrations outside of China: the infection cluster that has erupted on a cruise ship that the Japanese quarantined offshore and near the port of Yokohama. The vessel, with 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew, has seen more than 200 aboard diagnosed with Covid19. As passengers and crew have reported increasing distress that the ship was becoming a viral hothouse due to what many have called a harsh lockdown, the Japanese have begun to relent. Elderly, frail, and vulnerable passengers have been allowed ashore for hospitalization and quarantine. The United States has stepped in to evacuate hundreds of Americans aboard for a charter flight home, where passengers will be quarantined on American military bases.

The negative experiences with the Princess Cruises ship have focused attention, too, on plans and facilities elsewhere for health lockdowns. Experts on epidemics have expressed wariness, for example, about the effectiveness of quarantining people potentially exposed to Covid19 in big, open tents or barracks-like facilities. Such centers won’t contain the virus and may heighten the risks for infection, as the Japanese situation has shown.

U.S. hospitals — slammed by patients sick with the seasonal flu — keep preparing and say they hope to ready for Covid19 if it strikes, though authorities say the risk of infections in this country remains low.

Despite the calls for common sense in response to a disease whose highest risks remain distant for now, people of Asian descent, notably in this country, keep experiencing slurs, bullying, and shunning, racist conduct purportedly tied to Covid19 fears.

The nonsensical responses also have seen dives in business in Chinese communities in the United States. Global commerce, of course, has struggled due to the viral outbreak and China’s virtual shutdown with the travel industry hit hard. Major U.S. airlines have extended their flight cancellations in the China market now into April, while cruise lines say their business is hurting.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the significant benefits they can enjoy by staying healthy and out of the U.S. health care system.  It has its own serious problems with medical errorpreventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses that patients would do well to avoid.

That said, the U.S. health system not only needs fixes of those and other issues — most notably its woeful problems with costs, safety, and quality — it also requires support, especially in the public health area. American taxpayers need to be clear-eyed and realistic about risks, needs, and appropriate responses, especially in the expensive area of health care. Globalization has interconnected us to the world, as never before, bringing benefits and harms to our shores. As the 2021 U.S. budget gets hashed out, Congress, for example, needs to reject the Trump Administration’s targeting of funding for American support for disease fighting around the world. We’ve got a lot of level-headed work to do to protect ourselves and the planet from illnesses like Covid19.

Photo credit: NIAID-RML
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