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If the coronavirus hits America, who’s responsible for protecting you?

What the response to a Covid-19 outbreak in the US could look like.

Young women wear masks as protection against the coronavirus
Young women wear face masks as protection against the coronavirus during Chinese New Year celebrations in London on January 26, 2020.
Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty Images

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The outbreak of the coronavirus — and Covid-19, the disease it causes — in mainland China has provoked a response the likes of which the world has never seen. Hundreds of millions of people in the country have had their travel restricted; many have not even been allowed to leave their homes. All of this is aided by the vast Chinese surveillance state.

Meanwhile, though the number of new cases in China dropped to 406 on Wednesday, bringing the total to 78,000, China is ramping up capacity to treat tens of thousands of sick people, with new hospitals going up nearly overnight. Many people still haven’t returned to work, though some of the restrictions are being eased.

Draconian restrictions on movement and the intensive tracking of people potentially exposed to the virus are just some of the ways China — a centralized, authoritarian state — has responded to its outbreak.

What would have happened if the outbreak had started in the US — or if it comes here next?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses reporters about the coronavirus update
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses reporters at the State Department about the coronavirus outbreak on February 25, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The number of confirmed cases in the US is small: just 14, and 12 are related to travel. An additional 45 people who were sickened with Covid-19 abroad have returned to the US for treatment. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted its message on the likelihood of the coronavirus spreading in the United States. “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters in a press call. She said it’s a matter of “when,” not “if,” and that “disruption to everyday life might be severe.”

There’s still a lot we don’t about the virus. It’s a novel, fast-spreading disease to which people have no known immunity. So far, no vaccines or drugs to treat it exist, though both are being developed. That said, many of the cases of Covid-19 are mild, as Vox’s Julia Belluz reports. The fatality rate — which remains an early estimate that could change — is hovering around 2 percent. A virus of these parameters could spread very quickly.

While there’s much we don’t know about how this could play out with regard to how many people will get sick and how sick they’ll get, what we do know is the United States has dealt with outbreaks — polio, tuberculosis, and H1N1 flu, for starters — before, and many health officials have been anticipating a new one. There are lots of professionals at the federal and local levels who stand ready to try to stymie the spread of coronavirus in the United States.

That’s not to say our system is perfect, or even necessarily prepared for this incoming novel virus. But it’s worth thinking through what responses are possible in the United States and how they might become politicized. There are a few really important things to know.

The biggest one: Public health is a power that’s largely left up to the states, which introduces flexibility into our system. But it also introduces inconsistencies, local politics, and laws, with varying protections for civil liberties. The biggest question remains: Can our health care infrastructure handle an influx of thousands of new patients?

Public health is largely up to the states

The first question to ask about outbreak response in the United States: Who is in charge?

You may think “the White House,” or some arm of the federal government. But per the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution, public health is not a power specifically given to the federal government, and so it rests mainly with the states, as well as large cities with strong public health departments, like New York City.

“It’s important to remember that public health is actually a police power that is delegated to the states,” says Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown.

Anthony Fauci (center), director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus during a press briefing on February 25, 2020, while flanked by Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This may be good news if you’re nervous about the Trump administration’s preparedness for a significant outbreak. The federal government does have some powers, including the right to quarantine travelers coming from abroad (the CDC recently issued its first mandated quarantine on travelers in 50 years due to Covid-19), and to impose travel restrictions. If things get really bad, the federal government “can basically federalize state response if there’s a failure of local control,” says Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC and former New York City health commissioner. But local control comes first.

The federal government maintains the CDC, the premier disease-tracking and prevention research agency in the world, whose guidance is essential during an outbreak. The agency also maintains a strategic stockpile of medical supplies like respirators to deploy in a wide-ranging pandemic.

The administration could also appoint a person (like a Covid-19 “czar”) to oversee coordination between the many departments of the federal government (Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and others) to aid the response. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump did that, saying that Vice President Mike Pence will be in charge of the federal response.

President Trump and senior officials address reporters regarding US preparedness on the coronavirus outbreak, on February 26, 2020.
Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

That’s a proactive step (though Pence’s record on health is not stellar). But it comes after years of Trump taking actions that make us less prepared for an outbreak, and weaken public health programs. “There used to be a White House office in charge of pandemic prevention and response,” says Ron Klain, who led the response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic under the Obama administration. “President Trump abolished the office in 2018.”

How local governments could intervene in an outbreak

Cities and states hold most of the power to act during an outbreak. What could they do?

“There are pros and cons to the decentralized way we do public health in the US,” Frieden says. “There’s enough autonomy so that New York City doesn’t need permission from New York state or the CDC or the federal government to announce an outbreak and begin aggressive control measures.”

How aggressive could it get? State governments, as well as some large cities, have the power to order quarantines, or the practice of isolating people who may have been exposed to a virus in order to prevent them from spreading the illness before they start experiencing symptoms.

The power is not only to order quarantines, but also to enforce them. “Public health is actually a police power that is delegated to the states,” Katz says. “You could end up with someone coming to your door and saying, ‘You’ve been exposed, and you’re either coming with me or you have to stay in your house.’”

An empty courtyard at Statale University in Milan on February 24, 2020. Schools and universities in Italy’s Lombardy region were ordered closed as authorities seek to contain cases of Covid-19 that have made the country the focal point of the outbreak in Europe.
Luca Bruno/AP

They could force you to stay at home or detain you in a facility. “There are still some places in the country where they may put someone with active TB [tuberculosis] in a jail cell,” Katz added, “because it might be the only place available for negative pressure containment,” an air purification scheme.

To be clear, that’s an extreme scenario. Katz says these detainment powers are rarely, if ever, used. To start, a quarantine order would probably be voluntary, and possibly limited to people who know for sure that they have had direct contact with an infected person. (Katz suggests that if it comes to it, think of quarantine as jury duty — an annoying civic duty you just have to endure.)

Health policy experts also debate the effectiveness of using mass quarantines and shutting down cities to stop or prevent the spread of an outbreak. Generally, the focus is on isolating patients who are actually sick and quarantining contacts who may have been exposed. But that’s not to say a local government wouldn’t turn to quarantines or travel restrictions, despite public health experts advising against them.

During an outbreak, local authorities would likely take their guidance from the CDC and the federal government. But it would be up to these local authorities to enact the “disruption to everyday life” that Messonnier mentioned in the press call.

Quarantine is not the only option for slowing an outbreak. Depending on how the virus spreads, it could be extremely hard to find people who have been exposed and put them in quarantine.

Other measures can be put in place, such as postponing or canceling mass gatherings like sporting events, concerts, or religious gatherings. It could mean closing schools (any local school board could decide to do this independently) or encouraging telework. The CDC calls such measures “social distancing,” designed to slow the spread of a contagious disease. (Other good practices during any outbreak: Stay home if you’re sick, cover your coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands.)

The San Carlo Church in Milan is seen empty on February 26, 2020. The rise of the coronavirus has made Italy the worst-affected country in Europe.
Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

The CDC’s Messonnier wants people to prepare for the possibility of these social-distancing measures and figure out how they might live and work around them. “Think about what you’d do for child care if schools or day cares are closed,” she said. “Is teleworking an option for you? Does your health care provider offer a telemedicine option? All of these questions can help you be better prepared for what might happen.” (The CDC maintains a guide for families to prepare for pandemic flu. Some of the recommendations could also apply to a respiratory illness like Covid-19.)

What’s not going to happen in the US: the wholesale lockdown of a city, like what has occurred in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated.

“It would be impossible to shut down a major city in United States,” Klain says. “You couldn’t feed the people in the city without things coming in and out. You couldn’t remove the garbage. You couldn’t run the health care system. In the end, if you tried to shut down a major city in the United States, more people would die from the impact on the hospitals in that city ... than you would save by slowing the spread of coronavirus.”

The cons of this system

A pro of our decentralized public health system is that individual communities can be nimble and decide what’s best in dealing with an outbreak. A con is that we end up with a potential patchwork of responses. Viruses don’t care about state or city boundaries, and people routinely travel between them. Overall, that could make it harder to control the spread of an infection.

Katz has conducted research into the variety of quarantine laws that exist across states. “Most of these laws are really old and haven’t been updated,” she says. “A lot of the state-level regulations have not been updated since the civil rights and individual rights laws of the ’60s and ’70s went into effect.” Some laws don’t provide protections such as a right to legal counsel when being quarantined. Very few states — only 20 percent — have provisions to keep people from being fired from missing work during a quarantine.

The upshot: Because many states haven’t bothered to revise these laws, they haven’t thought through what a modern-day quarantine should look like or what rights need to be respected.

Katz’s co-authored 2018 paper on this sums it up starkly:

Fewer than half of state laws even include right to counsel during a quarantine, and many fewer have written protections for being able to choose a medical provider or receive compensation for damages that may occur. While half of the states have granted explicit police powers to enforce public health actions during a quarantine, half do not. And only 20% provide any employment protection for individuals forced to stay away from work for the betterment of society. More worrisome, less than half of the states have language in their laws and regulations related to providing safe and humane quarantines.

“We believe the variation between states and the inclusion of curious rules creates an environment across the country that will result in unease, confusion, and possibly civil unrest if large-scale quarantines are ever required,” the paper concluded.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testifies before the Senate Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee on February 25, 2020. HHS is asking Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency funding to prepare for the growing global threat of coronavirus.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The patchwork also introduces politics into the mix. Governors, mayors, school boards, and other local officials are politicians, who we know don’t always heed the best available advice of scientific experts. A few weeks ago, during a House hearing on the emerging coronavirus outbreak, Johns Hopkins University infectious disease expert Jennifer Nuzzo testified that international travel bans during outbreaks are unproductive and ineffective. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) said her testimony “does not pass the test of common sense.”

Political responses to the outbreak may be wide-ranging. Some may fear that acting will hurt their local economy, while others may overreact. In 2014, a teacher in Maine was placed on leave because he had traveled to Dallas, where an Ebola patient died in a hospital (the teacher had not visited the hospital). During the Ebola outbreak, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie forced a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in Africa into quarantine. She never exhibited symptoms of the disease, and experts concluded she posed no risk. But the governor held her in isolation anyway. The nurse ended up suing the state, arguing her rights had been infringed on.

Already, we have seen ways in which local politics can influence the US response to Covid-19. The city of Cosa Mesa, California, has gone to court trying to block federally quarantined patients from going to a facility there. The Trump administration scrapped plans to send quarantined people from the Diamond Princess cruise ship to a facility in Alabama after local outcry.

Another fear is that Trump will undermine the advice and messaging of the CDC for political or personal reasons, similar to the “SharpieGate” incident in which he displayed an altered version of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hurricane forecast map for the press. Trump had previously erroneously tweeted that Alabama had been in the path of Hurricane Dorian, and the altered map seemed intended to make the president look like he was correct all along.

The White House is getting moving on a coronavirus response, asking Congress for $1.25 billion in emergency funding to prepare (though they request the money be sourced from funds allocated toward work on the Ebola virus). Trump, so far, has been downplaying the risk of the coronavirus taking hold here but is reportedly “furious” about how the news of the disease is impacting the US stock market.

Are hospitals ready?

The scariest what-if to think through is this: What if a disease like Covid-19 does start to spread widely here, sending thousands or more to hospitals across the country? Another worry is that transmission would likely begin in a big, urban environment with international travel hubs. Could our institutions handle that?

“No,” Klain says bluntly. “That’s one of the most dangerous things about this. It could overwhelm a local health care system. We don’t have extra hospitals just sitting around with doctors and nurses and beds with no patients in them. That’s not the way our health care system works, right? Underperforming hospitals are shut down. Generally, hospitals run pretty full. What if all of a sudden 10,000 sick people needed hospitalization in a major city? There’s no 10,000 extra beds sitting around someplace.”

(It bears mentioning another concern: This is the American health care system, where sick people are known to avoid care due to fears of high medical bills.)

American citizens leave the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship on February 17, 2020, in Yokohama, Japan, to be repatriated to the US.
Carl Court/Getty Images

We’d likely have to build tent hospitals to triage patients, and possibly cancel elective surgeries to free up beds in existing facilities.

“You’ll find patients backed up in the emergency room; you will find patients on gurneys because there aren’t enough beds,” says William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He says all hospitals will have a pandemic preparedness plan, which is often rehearsed. But even the best plans have flaws.

During the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, Schaffner says that caregivers at Vanderbilt’s emergency pediatric department were getting fatigued. “We didn’t have kind of a team on the bench who were emergency pediatric certified to go in. So we got volunteers from the rest of the pediatric physician staff,” he said. “These staff members had to quickly be trained for the emergency room.”

Diseases are chaotic by nature. Outbreaks test the system and will reveal its flaws. Just how unprepared is the US medical system for a big outbreak? Hopefully, we won’t have to find out.

Listen to Today, Explained

Covid-19 may be on the brink of becoming a pandemic. Vox’s Julia Belluz explains what that p-word means and Brian Resnick breaks down what an outbreak response might look like in the United States.

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