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WATCH: What have past pandemics, and COVID-19 taught us?

Novel coronavirus has sickened more than a million people in the United States, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. But this isn’t the first time the country has faced a major pandemic. How have the health and governmental responses to the 1918 flu and COVID-19 informed our preparation for future pandemics and a possible second wave of the coronavirus?

Public health expert, Dr. Leana Wen speaks to PBS NewsHour’s John Yang about past and present pandemic policies.

Watch the conversation live in the player above.

The novel coronavirus has sickened more than a million people in the United States, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. But this isn’t the first time the country has faced a major pandemic. How have the health and governmental responses to the 1918 flu and COVID-19 informed our preparation for future pandemics and a possible second wave of the coronavirus?

Public health expert Dr. Leana Wen speaks to PBS NewsHour’s John Yang about past and present pandemic policies.

The importance of social distancing

One of the lessons the world learned after the 1918 flu pandemic was the value of social distancing, Wen said. When the novel coronavirus overwhelmed testing in the U.S. and public health officials lost track of who had been infected or exposed, Wen said the country had to revert to this century-old “blunt instrument” to protect people and slow the spread of the virus.

This week, the Trump administration announced plans to ramp up testing and reopen the country, but millions of Americans have still gone untested.

Timely testing dictates the kind of care that a patient needs and what personal protective equipment health care workers need to wear while treating them in order to stay safe, Wen said. Without more pervasive testing to determine how widespread the virus is in communities across the country, Wen said, the U.S. has no way of knowing where the next hotspot is and therefore cannot reopen safely.

Under the Defense Production Act, President Donald Trump has the power to jumpstart manufacturing tests and the reagents needed to process them, Wen said, adding that he could be leveraging that authority to get even more testing supplies to places that need them.

“The reason why we didn’t get testing initially is understandable,” Wen said. “The reason we’re not doing this now is not.”

Will there be a “second wave” of the coronavirus?

Another wave of COVID-19 infections could spread in two scenarios, Wen said. Public health officials, including Dr. Robert Redfield, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have speculated that a new round of COVID-19 infections could happen this fall, coinciding with seasonal influenza and posing a new set of challenges for the health care system and nation — both under strain from coping with this pandemic. Or, as states lift restrictions and encourage people to relax social distancing, she said “there could be a second wave well before the fall.”

Advice for essential workers

Social distancing is good for public health, Wen said, but it is a privilege, something that is done “to protect ourselves, but we do this to protect others who don’t have that option.”

For those who must work outside their home, Wen said to “try your best to reduce the total amount of risk that you have.” She offered this advice to essential workers trying to protect themselves and their families:

If you are able to avoid public transportation, drive or walk to work.
Wear a mask.
Wash your hands frequently, or keep sanitizer and alcohol-based wipes to maintain good hand hygiene.
Upon returning home, remove your clothes at the door, keep them in a separate place to be washed, and immediately wash your hands.

The importance of wearing masks

During the early days of the pandemic, CDC officials advised the public against wearing masks, but as the virus continues to spread, that guidance has changed, perplexing many people.

“The fact that things change, that guidance changes during a pandemic, is actually a good thing,” Wen explained. That means that the more research and studies that are being done to understand how this novel coronavirus behaves, the world’s knowledge about it also has evolved, forming “the cornerstone of a good public health response.”

“You’re changing along with the best, the best evidence and science,” she said.

When mounting evidence suggested strong links between asymptomatic transmission and COVID-19, Wen said the guidance around wearing masks changed “not to protect yourself from others. It’s to protect others from you in case you happen to be someone who is carrying the virus but just don’t know it.”

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