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What the U.S. health system needs now to fight COVID-19

President Trump has declared the pandemic of novel coronavirus a national emergency, allowing him to direct additional funds toward the federal government’s outbreak response. Will it mean faster virus testing and more ventilators? Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and The New York Times’ Dr. Sheri Fink join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the president is indeed, as we have been reporting directly, more money, and he announced moves today to speed up testing in coming weeks.

    But there are still a number of questions about how prepared the country is and why testing is taking so long to provide.

    We examine those issues with Dr. Irwin Redlener. He's director of the Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

    For the record, he is also now an adviser to Joe Biden's committee on the novel coronavirus.

    And Dr. Sheri Fink of The New York Times, she has been covering the testing issues extensively.

    Hello to both of you. We appreciate your joining us.

    And, Dr. Redlener, to you first.

    You did hear what the president had to say today about declaring a national emergency. You heard what they're saying about speeding up testing.

    How much difference do you believe all this is going to make?

  • Irwin Redlener:

    Well, you know, I guess I'm glad, finally, he's doing it, but I think almost everything to do with our handling of the coronavirus threat has been way too little and too late.

    I was shocked, many weeks ago, when we could get it right in terms of developing a reliable test that could be widely distributed to the country, we tried distributing what the CDC had. Turns out the testing materials were defective. Sheri wrote some extraordinary analysis of what went wrong there.

    But it's really — people are seeing this as an incredible, you know, incompetence of the government to get this right from the beginning. And even now, I spoke just this morning with several emergency medicine doctors who are still frustrated that they can't get these tests done.

    And I think this is sort of, in a way, symbolic of some widespread failures of this government to do what needs to get done. And I'm not really saying this politically. I'm saying this as a matter of public health.

    You know, we just look out the front window of the vehicle we're in, we're looking at Italy, and I'm telling you, we are absolutely not prepared to deal with the medical health system consequences of this kind of outbreak.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Sheri Fink, you did do some remarkable reporting that shed a light on what happened with efforts to come up with a new test, the difficulty in getting it done.

    With that in the background, you look at what the administration is saying today that they are going to be able to do, how close — how much closer does that get this country toward resolving this testing problem?

  • Sheri Fink:

    It sounds like a great solution, once it's in place. Unfortunately, we have heard over and over again that solutions are right around the corner.

    When that CDC test was shown not to work the first week of February or to have some issues, that was the first week of February, and we're still in the position where we are now, far into March. So, hopefully, that will really expand the testing capacity, particularly the approval of the first commercial test today through Roche.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sheri Fink, what is your understanding of what changed on the part of the administration and CDC, whoever was involved, in getting us to where we are right now?

  • Sheri Fink:

    I think what changed is that there was a realization that something had to be done.

    So that first test was intended for the nation's public health laboratories. They can only do so much anyways. Now we need a broad expansion, so there seems to be a recognition of that.

    And, also, a change — there was a real insistence on very strict rules that were very much slowing down the process of getting approvals for these laboratory-developed tests, and the FDA has since relaxed some of those rules. Maybe that could have been done sooner, as soon as we realized that there was an issue here.

    I even read about some private academic labs that stepped up and wanted to help in the urgent situation, when cases started to appear in communities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Sheri Fink:

    So there has been a recognition that this has needed to expand for quite some time now. It's very sad that we lost that time. It's unfortunate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure.

    Dr. Redlener, as you listened to the president and the officials around him speak today, Dr. Fauci and others, do you have a sense that the gravity of what is going on has now taken hold, and that we are going to see movement in this country, as you and others have said, needs to be recognized and to take place?

  • Irwin Redlener:

    Well, you know, of course, the public health officials, including Tony Fauci and many of the people at the CDC and so on, are legitimate, world-class public health professionals. They have worked through many presidencies.

    And I think they have been pretty much telling us what should be happening and what's gone wrong. However, it's been in contrast to this constant barrage of happy talk from the president and vice president, reassuring us that everything is under control, when it obviously wasn't.

    And the net effect of this confusion about the messaging leaves the American public and our public health officials locally in states and so on very, very confused and uncertain about what they're hearing.

    We lose confidence in the federal public health architecture, and that's just really, really bad in terms of a situation where we need to be helping people and guiding them, and they're getting mixed messages.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, when — staying with you quickly, Dr. Redlener, the $50 billion that are going to the states to amp up the resources available, that will make a difference?

  • Irwin Redlener:

    Well, hopefully, it will make some difference.

    But to actually fix what's now missing in our health system, in terms ability to really respond effectively, is not going to be fixed in a hurry, no matter how much money that we have.

    For example, we have — we're going to have a severe shortage of mechanical ventilator, breathing machines, to help people who are quite sick from this. The federal stockpile is very limited. The number of ventilators around the country is limited. We may need 100,000 ventilators.

    Those will not appear magically. It's not a question of money. It's a question of manufacturing or buying larger supplies, figuring out — we already have — we're very tight on respiratory therapists to run these machines.

    So we got a lot of work to do. The money is certainly fantastic. I'm grateful for it, but I wish it would have happened weeks ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sheri Fink, I would like you to answer that question as well.

    Based on what you heard, the money that they are spending, we heard the president say today, respirators, we're going to be buying a lot more respirators. How reassuring is all that?

  • Sheri Fink:

    I'm not sure if he meant respirators in terms of those N95 respirators, which are the masks that our health care workers need. They have a higher level of filtration for the virus.

    Those are sometimes called respirators. And then ventilators, the mechanical machines that help people who need help — artificial breathing, people in critical care. I wasn't sure which one he meant.

    But, certainly, the machines themselves, yes, as Dr. Redlener said, you need not only the machines, but also the people to staff them. So our hospitals really need to be making some plans around that. And it's very hard. This has been a problem that's been recognized for years.

    I have heard it talked about for years. And, unfortunately, we are in a situation where those investments weren't made earlier. It makes it hard to catch up. But, certainly, it's a good thing to have the funds now, for sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sheri Fink of The New York Times, Dr. Irwin Redlener, we thank you both.

  • Irwin Redlener:

    Thank you.

  • Sheri Fink:

    Thanks.

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