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VP Pence Appointed To Lead U.S. Coronavirus Response

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump has a new point person to lead the U.S. response to the coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me. But he's got a certain talent for this.

GREENE: That would be the vice president, Mike Pence. The president made this announcement last night during a government briefing on the virus. And during that briefing, President Trump contradicted his own health officials by saying he did not think an outbreak is inevitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Because of all we've done, the risk to the American people remains very low.

GREENE: I want to bring in Dr. Tom Inglesby. He's director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, joining us in our studios in Washington. Dr. Inglesby, thanks for taking the time for us.

TOM INGLESBY: Glad to be here.

GREENE: Let me start with the president there, you know, seeming to contradict, as I said, health officials in his own government, saying it's not inevitable that this virus is going to spread in the United States - sounds reassuring to all of us. Could he be right?

INGLESBY: Well, I think the president also talked about how this disease - and so he compared this disease to seasonal influenza, which happens to this country every year. And it's a good analogy in the sense that it's spreading like influenza spreads. And unfortunately, we see every year that seasonal flu or influenza spreads around the country and around the world, and I think it's most realistic for us to assume that this disease will also at some point be spreading in all countries around the world.

GREENE: So is there a danger in overreassuring Americans?

INGLESBY: Yeah, I think it's important not to overreassure; I think it's important to be really direct about what we know and what we don't know. And ultimately, I think the government will do better and the public will trust the government more if they understand exactly what's known about the disease and if they see that the government is looking ahead and trying to plan for what might come down the road.

GREENE: Now, I know you're saying that this can be compared to the flu, which, you know, as you said, is hard to control the spread of. But, I mean, the president made a point that they've done what he views as a good job in stopping people bringing the virus into the country by traveling. Is there a chance that they have stopped this before, you know, things could get out of control?

INGLESBY: I think they have identified travelers, and they've done that well, and they've isolated them and isolated their contacts, and that's been a good thing. But as we see in seasonal flu, people come into this country by a variety of means all over the country, all - from all over the world. And we saw other countries take the same measures, like Italy and Iran, as we did in terms of blocking travelers from China. And they now have very large outbreaks of their own. So I think our planning assumption should be that even with travel screening at our airports, that this disease will get into the country by other means.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you now about some of the most recent news. Just as that press conference was ending last night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this new infection here in California, believing it might be the first person in the country to test positive without a known link to traveling abroad. Just tell me what the significance of that development might be.

INGLESBY: If we find cases from travelers, we can isolate them and break the chain of transmission. We isolate them and make sure they don't infect others while they're sick. But if we find someone in the community who hasn't traveled and hasn't been around a known case, then that suggests that there is some kind of invisible line of transmission in that community which has gotten to that person. So it suggests that there are more cases in the community that haven't been identified.

And in general, the way that that's termed around the world is community transmission or community spread, and that's worrisome if that turns out to be the case with this California case because it does suggest that, at least to some small extent, there is some transmission going on. But again, I haven't heard the full details, so I don't know if we can confirm that yet. But that would be a worrisome development.

GREENE: When you think about whether our country is ready for widespread infections or at least infections in terms of the numbers that other countries have seen, what do you look for in terms of what it says to us - we are ready or that we might have problems ahead?

INGLESBY: I think our hospitals need to be really prepared for taking care of patients, especially ones who have critical illness or who might need time in the intensive care unit. We need the public to be informed about what it should be doing in terms of washing hands and covering their coughs and sneezes. So we need a good, effective communication campaign between the government and the public. And I think clarity from our top health officials, from our top political leaders is going to be very important.

GREENE: Dr. Tom Inglesby directs the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks so much for your time.

INGLESBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.