As coronavirus makes its way into the U.S., some are complaining about the federal response. But the nation already is far ahead of preparatory work associated with a deadly outbreak a century ago.
In 1918, Spanish flu killed more than a half-million Americans. As it spread, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson pushed to stifle talk of the outbreak.
Many realized its true severity, yet people – including the press – were scared to talk about it. Wilson recently had passed the Sedition Act, making it illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of the government” or to “incite or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of anything … necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.”
Violators faced 20 years in prison.
Today, there is no Sedition Act, and criticism of the government response is rampant. Yet commissions are being formed nationally, Vice President Mike Pence is directing the federal response, and states and cities are working ahead of the virus by informing the public of updates and preparations.
The North Dakota Department of Health held a press conference Friday, with Kirby Kruger, director of the Division of Disease Control saying “although we still want to do the early identification and containment, we also need to start readying our state for community-level preventions.”
North Dakota has no confirmed cases of illness – officially known as COVID-19. Same goes for Minnesota. Kruger said the risk in North Dakota is low, but not zero.
Also, the state already has put processes in place for emergency outbreak situations. Last week, Tim Wiedrich of the Department of Health said a coalition of public and private partners was formed in 2002 to piece together a plan for certain emergencies, including a disease outbreak.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling Americans that “it’s not so much a question of if this will happen, but rather more a question of when.”
A vaccine is at least a year away. President Trump has been criticized for saying a vaccine will come rapidly, but pharmaceutical executives stressed a more conservative timeline. The president then told them to contact him directly if they face holdups from the government. That’s good.
The messaging from the White House has been too upbeat; after all, some experts predict coronavirus someday could hit half of the world’s adult population. The White House is likely trying to reduce hysteria, but somewhere there is a line between panic and nonchalance.
Meanwhile, the White House likely senses that fear – and the frenzy that can ensue – is a terrible response.
The best advice comes from a CBS News report, aired Tuesday morning, that urged viewers to “pump the brakes,” be responsible in preparations and not be alarmists. For many agencies, that’s exactly what’s happening.
In the meantime, do what you can: Pay attention to news reports, wash your hands, sneeze into your sleeve, cover your coughs, get checked if symptoms appear and don’t go to work or school if you’re feeling unwell.