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Federal Officials Warn Americans To Plan For Coronavirus To Spread

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is not a matter of if but when. That is the warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the coming spread of coronavirus in the United States. Later today, President Trump, along with CDC officials, will have a press conference to talk about the coronavirus. Last night, San Francisco declared a state of emergency, even though there are currently no confirmed cases among city residents. Meanwhile, Iran, Italy and South Korea are scrambling to contain outbreaks. An American soldier stationed in South Korea is the first U.S. service member to test positive. And the virus has arrived in Africa. Algeria is reporting the first confirmed case on the continent.

Dr. Margaret Harris is a physician with the World Health Organization. She's part of the WHO's coronavirus response team and joins us on the line from Geneva, Switzerland, on Skype. Dr. Harris, thank you for taking a few minutes for us this morning.

MARGARET HARRIS: Good morning, David. It's a pleasure.

GREENE: Well, so as you are studying the spread of coronavirus in different parts of the world and trying to understand how it's spreading, are there particular places that you're focusing on?

HARRIS: We focus on the entire world. Obviously, we watch where it's going, and we are working very, very intensively with countries - about 40 countries we've identified as having particularly fragile health systems. So those are countries that really need a lot of supplies, a lot of help with their health workers and their infection prevention control practices to be really, really ready.

GREENE: What are some of the key supplies, key equipment that makes a country better prepared for this virus compared to other countries?

HARRIS: Well, one thing that's key is to have the test. So initially in Africa, there was only one place that could actually test. Now we've really upped the numbers, and testing can be done all over the continent. And that's really important because you want to know as quickly as possible whether you've got it in your population. The other thing, of course, is protective equipment. Now, this is quite a challenge because private individuals have been buying up stuff which is not really necessary. It is needed to protect health workers. But as individuals, the main protection you should be looking at is excellent hygiene and excellent hand hygiene, particularly.

GREENE: So during the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, there was concern here in the United States about the public health system, about a shortage of hospital ventilators and some other treatment equipment. For our listeners here in the United States, I mean, can they be confident that that shortfall has been addressed or could that be something that we see again in this response?

HARRIS: That's certainly something that I'm sure your health authorities are looking at right now. So - because our message to every, every health system in the world is be ready. And that means exactly that. What capacity do you have to ventilate people? This particular virus goes down into the lungs very quickly. Now, we know now that 80% of people have a mild course. That means they won't need ventilation. But you have the other 10 to 20% of people who need significant medical care. And of those, another 5% sadly get very, very ill and 2% die. But that death rate could be a lot higher somewhere where the level of care that has been available in China - China's actually got an extraordinarily strong health system. That level of care's been available in China. In another country, it might be a very different story.

GREENE: I want to ask you about what feels to me like some mixed messages that we've been getting. Your organization, the WHO, says that this is not yet a pandemic. But then we have the CDC telling people here that it's going to impact daily life in the United States. I mean, can you tell people in the U.S. how worried should we be here?

HARRIS: So you should be ready. So the term pandemic is - and this argument is really - it's a taxonomic argument. For us, a pandemic means it's in every part of the globe and there's sustained community transmission. Now, we are seeing cases popping up in different countries around the world, but many countries have actually stopped it from becoming an outbreak. And that's the crucial thing. Be ready and really engage your community. People who know that they've traveled, if they become unwell, should identify themselves as potentially having the illness and self-isolate and ask for help. So many countries now have a hotline, have a means of - for people to ring up and say I think this might be a problem with me so they can be tested but not go out into the community. And it's working in a lot of countries. So that's why we're not saying pandemic yet. But once indeed if it becomes widespread - community spread in a number of countries, we are looking at what would be called a pandemic.

GREENE: Dr. Margaret Harris is with the WHO. She is part of the coronavirus response team and also a spokesperson for the World Health Organization. Thanks so much for your time.

HARRIS: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.