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What WHO doctor says Americans should do in face of COVID-19 pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic. The illness has infected about 120,000 people worldwide and claimed 4,400 lives, and public health officials both within the U.S. and abroad are warning that the crisis will get worse. Amna Nawaz reports, and Judy Woodruff talks to WHO’s Dr. Margaret Harris about how people should be preparing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The World Health Organization officially characterized the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic today.

    President Donald Trump will be addressing the nation tonight to discuss the widening spread of the virus. We will be back here on PBS with that live at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time.

    The novel coronavirus has now killed roughly 4,400 people worldwide and infected about 120,000, including more than 1,000 in the U.S.

    That triggered another nosedive on Wall Street, as the Dow Jones industrial average entered bear market territory. It has now fallen 20 percent below last month's record close. The Dow plunged today 1,465 points to close at 23553. The Nasdaq fell 392 points, and the S&P 500 lost nearly 141.

    That comes amid a new wave of cancellations and restrictions on large gatherings. In an unprecedented move, the NCAA college basketball tournament announced that its games will be held without fans in attendance.

    Amna Nawaz has more on the outbreak's impact both at home and abroad.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A new global milestone in the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The World Health Organization said the crisis has officially reached pandemic proportions.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. We cannot say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough. All countries can still change the course of this pandemic.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Here in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill about that course, saying the worst is yet to come.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    How much worse it will get, will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx in people who are infected coming from the outside and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country. Bottom line, it's going to get worse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    His assessment drew concern from Democrats, who accused administration officials of responding too slowly.

  • Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.:

    This administration wasn't prepared for this crisis, and it put lives at risk, American lives at risk.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, speaking at the Heritage Foundation today, blamed China for withholding information about the virus, accusing them of hampering the global response.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    It probably cost the world community two months to respond. And those two months, if we'd had those and been able to sequence the virus and had the cooperation necessary from the Chinese, I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened both in China and what's now happening across the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Trump, during a White House meeting with bank CEOs, defended his administration's actions.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're having to fix a problem that, four weeks ago, nobody ever thought would be a problem.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Members of Congress, meanwhile, drilled down today on efforts to cushion the economic fallout.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    We need an economic vaccine. I'd like to have an economic package to address the damage done by the coronavirus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Senate Democrats unveiled their proposal today, which included paid sick leave for workers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    The help should be aimed at people, not at corporations. We believe the help should be targeted at the people who have suffered from this coronavirus problem.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And House Democrats hope to bring their version up for a vote on the floor tomorrow.

    At least 39 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia have so far reported confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Across the country, cities and institutions are grappling with how to contain the spread and protect their communities, from canceling large gatherings, to canceling in-person classes on college campuses.

    Hard-hit countries like South Korea continue with their own efforts, today sanitizing subway trains in Seoul. Infections there continue to fall, but a new cluster of cases stemming from a call center has health officials on edge.

  • Yoon Tae-Ho (through translator):

    As of 7:00 a.m. today, 90 people were tested positive, and we are investigating how many people were in close contact.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Italy, where cases today soared beyond 10,000, all stores, aside from pharmacies and supermarkets, closed in response to the crisis.

    In the Vatican, the pope's weekly catechism, normally set among tens of thousands in St. Peter's Square, was instead delivered from a private library via videolink.

    In Germany, already facing some 1,300 cases, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of a wider spread.

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel (through translator):

    The population has no immunity yet to this virus, there are no vaccines and no therapy so far, that a high percentage, experts say 60 percent to 70 percent, of the population will be infected as long as this situation continues.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But in the Chinese city where the virus first emerged, a different picture: Supermarkets and other businesses resumed work, a sign that, at least there, the crisis has begun to subside.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is word that President Trump is working to limit U.S. dependence on China as it responds to the outbreak. He's reportedly planning to issue an executive order insisting the U.S. use American-made pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, which would be a drastic change from the current supply.

    While life is slowly beginning to return to normal in China, many other countries are limiting social interactions.

    I spoke a few minutes ago with Dr. Margaret Harris from the World Health Organization and asked her why the agency is now calling COVID-19 a pandemic.

  • Margaret Harris:

    It's really because we're sending a message. And the message we were sending before is, get ready. But now the message is, it's here. Get serious.

    There's still a chance. Many countries have a chance to slow things down. But this virus is going to be in most communities. And so we have to mobilize all our forces, mobilize our people, mobilize our ideas, our innovations to stop it, slow it, so that it doesn't overwhelm health systems and cause major suffering and death.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When you say, in every community, do you mean literally every community, every city, every town, every neighborhood?

  • Margaret Harris:

    It has that potential to do that.

    So this is why we use a term like pandemic. We were loath to use it, because it does instill fear and it does instill panic. Our best weapon actually is calm, sensible, rational behavior and application of our genius.

    We have seen some incredible technological innovations in Korea and in China. And we have seen them beat down huge epidemics, huge numbers of cases, and bring them down. So we know we can do it. But it really does take every human being on this planet taking it seriously, listening to what needs to be done, and doing it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's sobering.

    And, Dr. Harris, when you speak about mobilizing governments, mobilizing people to action, what exactly are you asking governments, health systems to do? And can they do it?

  • Margaret Harris:

    So, one of the things that every country, every community needs to do is to understand, if someone is infected, we need to find them. So it's not that easy. You need to be tested.

    And then you also need to identify every one you have been in contact, and they need to be comfortable and want to be tested, and be ready to self-isolate.

    People also have to be ready not to crowd, not to go into spaces, into situations where they're going to be very close for quite some time, because that is the opportunity for passing on the virus.

    So that means you make changes. You work from home. You give up very important things like worship. You give up entertainment for a period when you know it's in your community.

    What we also know is, if you do these things, it will pass, you will be beat it, but it is a tough thing to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you're putting a lot of responsibility on individuals.

    At the same time, you're asking governments, health care systems to do their part. What are you looking for them to do? I notice that the director general of WHO said that some governments today have had alarming levels of inaction.

  • Margaret Harris:

    So, again, governments, we ask to really, really support their health workers and their hospitals and look at their capacity.

    So it's not simply about the teams who are currently working in intensive care. You need backup. You need to think about how you can provide the next team, because this is going to take a tremendous amount of work.

    This — the severe form of this disease is — leads to respiratory failure. And to survive it, you often need ventilation. And that ventilation can go on for weeks. If you are on that ventilator, the next person who also needs help, where are they going to go?

    Meanwhile, also, to look after somebody in that — at that level of critical care requires a team of nurses, doctors, other people, ancillary workers, ambulance workers, people working very, very hard for very long periods of time in personal protective equipment.

    So, you are — we are asking an enormous amount of our health workers to get through this. So, to stop that, we need to slow the number of cases that develop, so that, when people do get sick — and there will be people who get very sick — there will be the capacity to look after them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for people who are starting to panic, which some are, what is the message?

  • Margaret Harris:

    Well, the message is, don't panic.

    But it's also it's understandable that you have a sense of fear. Fear of plague, fear of disease is an innate human fear. You know, we have fear to protect ourselves from the unknown, from something that is a threat.

    But it also makes you make very bad decisions. So, listen to the advice. Go to trusted sources. You have some of the world's top brains in science in your country. You have got excellent advice from the CDC, from the NIH, also from the World Health Organization, also from excellent media outlets like PBS.

    Use those sources, learn, get knowledged up and help everybody else in your community. Look at the vulnerable, and see what you can do for them as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Margaret Harris with the World Health Organization, WHO, thank you very much.

  • Margaret Harris:

    No, it's a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me on your program.

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