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How U.S. health officials are responding to threat of novel coronavirus

With nearly 20,000 people in China infected by novel coronavirus, the country has essentially quarantined a population of 50 million. Countries including the United States have evacuated their citizens from China and restricted inbound travelers from there. Sec. of Health and Human Services Alex Azar joins William Brangham to discuss how U.S. health officials are handling the outbreak.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Governments around the world are ramping up their response to the viral outbreak that's emerged from China, and they're increasingly tightening access to the country.

    The U.S. government has declared its own public health emergency.

    Just a handful of American airports can now accept flights from China. And the first federally mandated quarantine in 50 years has taken effect for U.S. citizens returning from the country.

    William Brangham looks at the effect of all these moves.

  • William Brangham:

    The world's second largest economy is increasingly being sealed off from the rest of the world. Nearly 50 million people in China are essentially quarantined as the coronavirus outbreak has spread now to over 17,000 people worldwide.

    Citizens from countries like Turkey, the Czech Republic and Australia have been evacuated from the epicenter of the outbreak. The U.S. has evacuated nearly 200 Americans so far, and warned against any travel to China.

    This growing isolation is taking its toll on China's economy. Stocks plunged at opening today. Major airlines have halted flights in and out of the country. Factories are facing work stoppages. And companies like Apple are closing its stores.

    China's vice minister of commerce tried to downplay the bleak scenario.

  • Wang Bingnan (through translator):

    All departments and local governments are also taking precise measures to help enterprises create a good business environment and help enterprises reduce their burdens, while fighting the epidemic.

  • William Brangham:

    In Hubei province, where most of the cases have occurred, more than 8,000 medical workers arrived this weekend. Many will head to two newly built hospital, both constructed in less than two weeks.

    Reports in both The New York Times and The Washington Post this weekend detailed how early missteps and excessive secrecy by Chinese officials made it easier for the virus to spread.

    But, today, the WHO's top official said China's efforts are helping.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    If it weren't for China's efforts, the number of cases outside China would have been very much higher. And it could still be, but we have the opportunity now to work aggressively to prevent that from happening.

  • William Brangham:

    For now, more and more countries are increasing their restrictions on doing business or traveling to China.

    The U.S. government announced Friday it is denying entry to any foreign citizens who have traveled anywhere in China within the past 14 days.

    And, today, the Chinese government criticized a number of those U.S. decisions, calling the recent evacuations and Friday's travel ban an overreaction that will — quote — "create and spread fear."

    For more on all of this, I'm joined now by the secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar. He is overseeing the American response.

    Secretary Azar, welcome back.

  • Alex Azar:

    Thanks, William.

  • William Brangham:

    Could you just give us a sense?

    The modeling that we have seen indicates this is very likely going to become a true global pandemic. Do you believe that that is true, or do you think it is too early to make that call?

  • Alex Azar:

    I think it is very dangerous to make predictions about the future course of an unknown virus.

    We can tell you where we are. We can tell you where we have been. But there's so many unknowns with regard to this novel coronavirus. And that's what we look forward to working with China to try to get to the bottom of.

    How transmissible is it? What's the severity profile of it? Do we really see full asymptomatic transmission? Questions like that are the types of questions we have to get the bottom to about that will help us understand the curve that we're going to see on this infection.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's say that those models are accurate, and we do start to see a greater spread, not just in China, but elsewhere, perhaps even in the U.S.

    Is it your sense that our emergency response capacities, hospitals, doctors, nurses, that those facilities are prepared for that type of an outbreak?

  • Alex Azar:

    Well, we're proactively preparing.

    We have been working on pandemic preparedness for a couple of decades now. And so we have got a very robust, the best public health system in the United — in the world here. In fact, we have been identifying cases in the United States because of that health system.

    We have educated our doctors, our nurses, our health care providers to look for symptoms and to ask people questions. And that's how we have actually found the 11 cases that we have here in the United States.

    And it's going to be that good old-fashioned basic blocking and tackling of public health, the multilayered approach. You look for symptoms, you isolate, you diagnose, you treat, and then you do the contact tracing on others.

    So, we know what we're doing in this space. We have got the best, most experienced team at this.

    I, myself, I was here for 9/11, anthrax, smallpox preparedness, SARS, Ebola, monkeypox, Hurricane Katrina. So, we have got a team that knows what it's doing here.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk a little bit about the announcement on Friday about these new travel bans and quarantines.

    Non-Americans who've been in China, with a few exceptions, will largely be excluded from the country. Americans who've been in mainland China will be screened when they arrive at one of those 11 airports, may be quarantined if they show symptoms.

    Americans who've been in Wuhan will automatically be put into a two-week quarantine, maybe on military bases.

    Some public officials have argued that quarantines and travel bans may not be the best approach.

    Can you make the case as to why you think that is the right approach?

  • Alex Azar:

    Sure.

    Right now, for everyday Americans, the risk is quite low from this virus or any infection spread. Our job is to try to keep it that way. What we want to do is focus our limited public health resources where they matter most.

    So, right now, we keep bringing Americans back from the impacted area of Hubei province. Those individuals do need to be quarantined for up to 14 days. And that's actually consistent with what other major powers are doing with their own citizens when they're bringing them back. That's the incubation period. So we have to focus resources there.

    As for other Americans coming back on commercial craft from China, same thing, a very risk-titrated, individualized approach. We're asking those people who've been in mainland China to just self-isolate, so that they will have 14 days from when they last were in China until the point that they would expose their family members or their community at risk.

    We see great compliance on these measures. With Ebola, we saw 98 percent compliance on just voluntary measures like that. We're trying to be very temporary, very titrated, measured, and incremental in this approach, because the risk, again, is low. We want to keep it that way.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, as you know, though, quarantine is a — is something we haven't done in this United — in the United States for decades.

    Is it your sense that people will comply with this? And let's just say transmission does continue, and you need to quarantine more Americans. I mean, that — it could be very big number of people who are — who are basically being locked up for two weeks.

    Do you think people will be OK with that?

  • Alex Azar:

    Well, again, these measures are very tailored to individuals who are coming from the epicenter of this outbreak.

    Remember, 50 percent of the 17,000 known cases in China are from this one province. So, we're talking about the very small number of American citizens who have been in that province within the last 14 days.

    China stopped people being able to exit on January 21. So we're almost actually at 14 days at this point, so a very small segment of people.

    And then, as to China, the broader mainland China, the restrictions we have are really voluntary, asking people, for your own protection, protection of your family members and your community, just stay at home. Please isolate. Call into your public health department as you experience any types of symptoms, like temperature, or body aches, or respiratory symptoms.

    So these are things that people want to do to protect themselves, actually. They're very cognizant of this. So we think we will all be in this — we will be able to do this all together. It shouldn't be a major inconvenience for people.

    And we can hopefully slow any potential spread, while we work, in partnership with the Chinese government. China has taken extreme measures. They have isolated 50 million people, as you said in your opening segment there.

    We're working in concert with that. It's almost a complementary approach. If China can contain this virus within a portion of China, and then within China, and we and other countries can keep further spread, that's how this can eventually be brought down, hopefully.

  • William Brangham:

    Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, thank you very much for your time.

  • Alex Azar:

    Thank you, William.

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