EDITORIAL: Bolster plans on coronavirus

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Vice President Mike Pence, third from left, accompanied by Surgeon General Jerome Adams, left, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and others, speaks during a coronavirus task force meeting at the Department of Health and Human Services, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

There remains little reason for panic over the growing prospect of a wider outbreak of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, but there is every reason to prepare.

With new cases of undetermined origin turning up on the West Coast along with the nation’s first coronavirus-related fatality, leaders at every level of public health and government must redouble their planning and preparation.

Pennsylvania lawmakers see that need. State and local officials confabbed Friday about strategies for communications and responses should the virus — which has sickened more than 88,000 worldwide and claimed some 3,000 lives — find its way to York County.

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It’s still not clear that federal lawmakers share that urgency, however.

A presidential n conference Wednesday that was intended to reassure the nation was, instead, long on self-congratulations and short on detailed assessments of — and plans for — the threat. President Donald Trump didn’t even seem to care how much money Congress might appropriate toward the effort. In response, the stock markets accelerated their weeklong nosedive the following day.

The big news of the evening — the president’s announcement that Vice President Mike Pence would be the point person for federal efforts to prevent spread of COVID-19 — shows where the administration’s priorities lie. Instead of an infectious disease specialist, or even a medical professional, the nation gets a political appointee with a vested interest in the president’s (and his own) reelection — one whose record of responding to public health crises as governor of Indiana was questionable

Some commuters at Union Station adorn breathing masks in Los Angeles, Calif. on Jan. 31, 2020. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Word that federal health officials have been, in essence, gagged, with all information regarding the health crisis and response funneled through Pence’s office, further erodes confidence that the administration is putting public health above public relations.

And administration officials’ references last week to the global health threat as some sort of Democratic hoax strain credulity, even for this reality-challenged White House. There are dozens of foreign governments and thousands of grieving families that can set them straight.

So state and local leaders are wise to ramp up preparations. While there are no known cases in Pennsylvania, medical officials insist it is only a matter of time. That’s why Friday’s planning for York County must be built on and expanded.

After stumbling out of the gate, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has promised to distribute new testing kits to state and local health agencies early this month. That will give local health officials a much better idea what, if anything, they’re up against. And the president’s more sober assessment of the threat Saturday, at which time he expanded travel restrictions involving affected countries, was a welcome rendezvous with reason.

In the meantime, hospitals, health clinics, school districts, colleges, businesses large and small — even families — should be discussing and preparing for the appropriate actions to take should the disease spread locally.

President Donald Trump, with members of the President's Coronavirus Task Force, holds a paper about countries best and least prepared to deal with a pandemic, during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Much of this is already underway in York County. Local public school leaders are increasing their cleaning and disinfecting efforts and rethinking student trips overseas. County officials are putting together a database so all area municipalities and school districts can quickly access and share information.

Even at the individual level, the state Department of Health offers specific guidelines for citizens to follow to guard against contracting the virus (in large part, similar steps to those advised for avoiding the more common and, thus far in the United States, far more deadly flu).

Again, there is no reason to panic.

COVID-19 is still largely centered in China, where it originated. Confirmed cases in the United States remain under 100. And the mortality rate has been relatively modest thus far, especially compared with that of the most recent coronavirus outbreak, Mers.

But none of that is an excuse for not aggressively preparing now — throughout the health system and at every level of government. If it’s a question of when, not if, COVID-19 turns up in York County, all other questions regarding how to respond to the virus must by that time be answered.