Public Health Newswire spoke with Georges Benjamin, MD, APHA’s executive director, for insights on COVID-19, the coronavirus-related disease that was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. As of Feb. 16, there were more than 51,000 confirmed cases worldwide — with 98% of them in China — and 15 cases have been confirmed in the U.S.

Georges Benjamin speaking into microphoneQ: Health officials around the world are working to contain the outbreak. What is the U.S. doing?

A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the virus’ genetic strain, which allows them to make a diagnostic test and begin vaccine production, which can take a long time. In the meantime, CDC has created a diagnostic test that can detect the virus in human secretions.

It’s been submitted for emergency approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for distribution to designated public health laboratories around the country. That way, testing can be done at the state and local level and not just at CDC. Our public health system is working.

Every day we’re going to learn more and more. This is a rapidly changing situation. We’re going to have to be flexible and fluid, innovative in our thinking. The diagnostics will improve and eventually we’ll identify antiviral agents.

Q: What do public health workers in the U.S. need to know?

A: With an event like this, I encourage checking the CDC website when you wake up and before you go to bed to see what we know and what’s changed. If you’re not in the CDC Health Action Network, get on the email list for information on clinical activity, screening issues, virus locations. Stay informed.

Q: How can public health workers and clinicians talk to the public about the risks?

A: The usual precautions apply. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands, clean surfaces. I get that people are nervous: This is a tricky virus because symptoms range from mild to severe, including death. It’s hard to know if you have a cold, the flu or novel coronavirus.

Yes, we should be concerned. But right now, most of the cases are in China, and we’ve isolated people in the U.S. who have come from there with symptoms. People here are more likely to get hurt by not getting a flu shot or wearing a bicycle helmet.

Are you Ready? Fact sheet on coronavirusQ. Does this have the potential to overburden our public health system?

A: Every public health officer in this country will be involved in this outbreak, whether they have a case in their area or not. And that work will be occurring as they’re dealing with their other public health demands — the folks who were dealing with the opioid epidemic last week are dealing with COVID-19 this week.

We need to be able to safeguard both the public and the public health workforce. During the SARS outbreak, a lot of people who were infected were health workers. Recent reports from China show that there have been at least 1,700 health care workers infected with COVID-19 there, and some have died. We have to protect the people who are working to save lives and end this outbreak.

The public health system is scrambling because the U.S. has not continued to build up the public health system the way we should. It all comes back to funding that allows for an adequate infrastructure, workforce, training, tools and resources.

Our federal emergency fund is rapidly being depleted. Congress needs to act.

CDC’s website includes COVID-19 information for both health care workers and public health professionals. For global updates on COVID-19, follow the World Health Organization’s regular situation reports.

For information to share in your community, download APHA’s easy-to-read COVID-19 fact sheet.

Photo of Georges Benjamin by Aaron Warnick, courtesy of The Nation's Health.