Sat | Mar 28, 2020

‘Time is everything’: World braces for spread of new virus

Published:Wednesday | February 26, 2020 | 12:17 AM
People wear masks as they commute during the morning rush hour in Chuo district in Tokyo. China’s massive travel restrictions, house-to-house checks, huge isolation wards, and lockdowns of entire cities bought the world valuable time to prepare for the global spread of the new virus.

(AP):

China’s massive travel restrictions, house-to-house checks, huge isolation wards, and lockdowns of entire cities bought the world valuable time to prepare for the global spread of the new virus.

But with troubling outbreaks now emerging in Italy, South Korea and Iran, and US health officials warning Tuesday it’s inevitable it will spread more widely in America, the question is: Did the world use that time wisely, and is it ready for a potential pandemic?

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Dr Nancy Messonnier of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some countries are putting price caps on face masks to combat price gouging, while others are using loudspeakers on trucks to keep residents informed. In the United States and many other nations, public health officials are turning to guidelines written for pandemic flu and discussing the possibility of school closures, telecommuting and cancelling events.

TRAIN TO TRACE

Countries could be doing even more: training hundreds of workers to trace the virus’ spread from person to person and planning to commandeer entire hospital wards or even entire hospitals, said Dr Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organization’s envoy to China, briefing reporters yesterday about lessons learned by the recently returned team of international scientists he led.

“Time is everything in this disease,” Aylward said. “Days make a difference with a disease like this.”

The US National Institutes of Health’s infectious disease chief, Dr Anthony Fauci, said the world is “teetering very, very close” to a pandemic. He credits China’s response for giving other nations some breathing room.

China locked down tens of millions of its citizens and other nations imposed travel restrictions, reducing the number of people who needed health checks or quarantines outside the Asian country.

It “gave us time to really brush off our pandemic preparedness plans and get ready for the kinds of things we have to do,” Fauci said. “And we’ve actually been quite successful, because with the travel-related cases, we’ve been able to identify, to isolate” and to track down those they came in contact with.

With no vaccine or medicine available yet, preparations are focused on what’s called ‘social distancing’ — limiting opportunities for people to gather and spread the virus.

That played out in Italy this week. With cases climbing, authorities cut short the popular Venice Carnival and closed down Milan’s La Scala opera house. In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on companies to allow employees to work from home, while the Tokyo Marathon and other public events scheduled in the coming weeks have been cancelled.

Is the rest of the world ready?