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Coronavirus in the U.S.: things are ‘changing hour by hour’

The response to the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. is changing on an almost hourly basis. But as health care workers face a volley of new challenges amid an American populace wary of the global pandemic, there has been an increase in testing and guidelines to consider. Caroline Chen, a ProPublica reporter who is covering the outbreak, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The response to the Coronavirus outbreak is changing on an almost hourly basis. Testing is increasing, health care workers are facing new challenges and there are guidelines for all of us to consider in our interactions. Caroline Chen, who reports on healthcare and public health issues for ProPublica, joins us now for more. One of the concerns that so many people have had now: last weekend, the administration said there's gonna be a million more tests out there, the test kits out there. They're going to be getting out to the private labs. They're going to be having access to it. And just this afternoon, we heard both the Vice President and the President sort of modify that, because it seems like when you talk to doctors and hospitals, they don't necessarily have all those kits.

  • Caroline Chen:

    So things are literally changing hour by hour. I think even as of this week, we have continued to hear Americans say we want to be tested. We can't get tested. And to hear doctors saying we want to get these patients tested and we can't. And that's tremendously frustrating and anxiety provoking. And I think it's important not just on the individual level because of that anxiety.

    You know, I want to know it's important for the country to know where the disease is. And I keep thinking about an interview I did with a scientist who said, 'the disease is ahead of the data.' And that's so important, because if you don't know where the disease has spread, it's so hard for public health officials to plan and know how to respond at a macro-scale. And I think the problem there, as we know, has not only been just production of the materials, but I think another thing that a lot of people just don't think about is, you know, it actually takes manpower at individual labs to run the tests. And so that's why I've continually been encouraging people to think about the idea of, what is the capacity at your local lab?

    Now, as we just said, things are changing. So now we have these big commercial companies coming on board. So Quest and LabCorp came on board this this week. And then on the horizon, which is great, Roche, which is a big Swiss pharmaceutical company and diagnostics company, just got FDA approval and Thermo Fisher, which is another huge company. So that's going to be big volume and that's great. I just wish those had been ready to go a month ago.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right. That's one of the concerns that people have is, OK, that's fine. Three weeks out, four weeks out, if we have these millions of tests. But what does the virus do in the meantime? Does–

  • Caroline Chen:

    The virus is not waiting.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right. So is it, in these three or four weeks, should we just sort of default to that notion that, hey, listen, if you're presenting with these symptoms, call your doctor, don't show up in a waiting room right away?

  • Caroline Chen:

    So I think the recommendation has very clearly been to call and don't rush into a waiting room or to an E.R. because really the hospitals need to be able to triage. So I would say, like, listen to whatever is being told to you in your area. But the advice is really pick up the phone first.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If our health is the first priority, then we want to make sure that the health care system has 10 weeks, three months, six months to be able to deal with all the people who might get sick. That also means 10 weeks, three months, six months that we are going to be taking these significant precautions and life changes.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Yeah, absolutely. And I think the thing that I I feel like is a big take home from that notion of flattening the curve is that we all have a part to play here. Right? That, it's not this sort of inevitable thing, that, you know, individuals have nothing that they can contribute to. So every action that you take, you know, stay home when you are sick, you know, making the choice to practice more social distancing, to, you know, not be, you know, in someone's face, you know, contributes to flattening the curve. And I think that we all can play a part there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, there's sort of these conversations that happen among white collar workers about working from home, but there's a lot of people in the country that don't have a choice. Their job includes being in front of other people and servicing them. You were, we were talking off line about a phone call that you were getting from somebody who– tell us about that.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Yeah. So I got a phone call that has really stuck with me from someone who works in a grocery store in the Seattle area. And this person told me that they're fairly elderly and they rely on this job. So they need this job to work. And they are now surrounded by people who are, you know, crowding in the store, panic shopping. And they can't afford to just not work the job. You know? They don't have a lot of paid time off. And and the person who called me said, you know, I would love to just go home and quarantine myself and be safe, but I have to be at work. I need this job. And they just felt like they were waiting to be infected. And my heart just really went out to this person who called me because they had no choice.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Right. Caroline Chen from ProPublica, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Thank you for having me.

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