6 ways the US government could help contain the new coronavirus

U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak on Feb. 26, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak on Feb. 26, 2020. (Image credit: ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Fighting a new infectious disease is no easy feat for any government. But certain actions, or lack thereof, can make matters much worse. 

Now that the new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, is infecting people around the world, governments and health care systems are being put to the test. 

Here are six ways those in the U.S. government and health care system could step up to help contain the disease, called COVID-19, according to infectious disease doctors and public health experts. 

Related: Live updates on COVID-19

1. Don't make COVID-19 political.

Viruses aren't partial to politics; they'll infect people no matter how partisan an issue they become. Turning COVID-19 into a political issue could quickly backfire, said Dr. Stanley Deresinski, a clinical professor of infectious diseases at Stanford Medicine.

"People are so polarized now that they'll believe one group over the other," Deresinski told Live Science. "If it becomes a political issue, people may exclude useful information because they'll say it's coming from a partisan point of view."

2. Institute paid sick leave.

There are no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Moreover, many people live paycheck to paycheck, meaning they can't afford to miss work, even if they are sick. 

In other words, people who are sick with COVID-19 may still go to work, where they could infect other people, simply because they cannot afford to quarantine themselves at home. 

Compare that to the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Wednesday (March 4) that the British government would begin legislation that ensures that sick people who self-quarantine will receive pay starting on their first missed day, according to The Guardian. Under the current laws, employers have to provide sick pay beginning on the fourth day of missed work. 

Those who self-isolate are "helping to protect all of us by slowing the spread of the virus," Johnson told Parliament, as reported by The Guardian. "Nobody should be penalized for doing the right thing."

3. Make the COVID-19 test widely available.

COVID-19 testing got off to a rocky start in the U.S. At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was the only place in the country that could test for the virus. This created an enormous backlog. Moreover, the CDC had strict criteria for who could be tested, meaning that mild COVID-19 cases, as well as those not somehow linked to travel to an affected region, were overlooked, even though those people could still infect others. 

However, the rules are changing. In addition to the CDC test, New York developed a separate test that was just approved by the Food and Drug Administration. On Tuesday (March 3), Vice President Mike Pence, chair of the White House coronavirus task force, announced that "any American that wants to be tested for the coronavirus on their doctor's indications can be tested," NPR reported

Right now, however, public health labs can test only about 15,000 people daily, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services told The New York Times

"The lack of availability of testing has been a major disaster," Deresinski said. "In fact, now that tests will become much more widely available, you can expect there will be a dramatic increase in the number of identified cases."

On a side note, both the CDC and New York tests are currently free, according to FactCheck.org.

4. Test undocumented people.

Immigration policies have the potential to impact the spread of the disease throughout the community, Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Live Science. 

"More aggressive immigration enforcement will drive people underground, less likely to go to the hospital for testing and evaluation for COVID-19," he said in a Feb. 28 interview. 

5. Update preparedness plans from earlier epidemics.

This isn't the only time the U.S. has faced a new infectious disease in recent history. For instance, during the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) pandemic, many health care institutions made plans for how to handle the unexpected surge of patients into their emergency departments and intensive care units.

"Institutions should use those plans as the foundation for needed planning efforts now," three Johns Hopkins doctors recommended in a March 3 opinion piece in the journal JAMA. "Broadly speaking, those plans addressed the protection of health care workers, how to deal with staffing shortages, surges in patient numbers, triage issues, and management of scarce resources."

If an institution doesn't have such a plan, they can seek examples from other organizations, the authors wrote. 

6. Institute measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.

In addition to providing fast diagnostic tests and measures such as paid leave to help patients quarantine, the government can promote "social distancing," which can slow the spread of the virus.

For instance, social distancing measures could mean that large gatherings, such as sporting events and concerts, would be canceled, according to the JAMA viewpoint. In addition, people could telecommute when possible, and schools could be closed. 

"Although there is limited evidence for these measures historically, there is some common sense behind them given that they would reduce social interaction and the chance for the virus to spread in a community," the researchers wrote in JAMA. 

That said, political and public health leaders will have to weigh the pros and cons of social distancing measures. "For example, school closures mean that many children who depend on school meals will not receive them, and many single parents will be out of the workforce," the researchers wrote.

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Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.

  • jwjordan1945
    1. Agree wholeheartedly: early travel management and limited quarantine efforts ate far more productive than “the sky is falling” quasi-governmental pronouncements.
    2. Instituting Sick Leave INSURANCE before the Next major epidemic is an excellent idea.
    3. Reason the CDC initially limited guidelines was Availability. Official guideline now is “whoever” but testing is Still limited by availability.
    4. Announcing that ICE will mot be specifically targeting those self-reporting illness is another good idea.
    5. Of course they will be.
    6.Your blue slip is showing. The main reason for schools is Education. School lunches and child-sitting so a parent may work are tertiary functions at best, and should NOT be primary considerations in deciding wheather to cancel classes.
  • sugathra
    None of these 6 steps are effective strategies. The first and foremost is to find the right way to increase the immunity in human beings. Right now in great majority, particularly in Europe, Americas and Far East do not have the strength to fight COVID-19.
    The vaccine will take an year or so to be produced. So the way forward in increasing in human immunity to this virus, and the process is simple and will not cost Billions of Dollars.
    That process is mindfulness meditation to develop mindfulness and concentration in humans which will strengthen lymph power. The meditation does not cost even one dollar. Sugath