The practicalities and policy implications of the coronavirus

The practicalities and policy implications of the coronavirus

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As the coronavirus continues its slow and stress-inducing march across the globe there are several things – both from a practical, public health standpoint and from a public policy perspective – that all of us would do well to keep in mind. Here are five:

#1 – This is a deadly serious matter that we all need to treat as such. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, North Carolina’s State Health Director and Chief Medical Officer for the state Department of Health and Human Services on the Policy Watch radio show News and Views and she offered several important reminders about where things stand and what we all should do to minimize the risk.

Dr. Tilson urged everyone to get serious about the regular and thorough washing of hands and public surfaces and resisting as much as we can the urge to touch our faces. Both of these tactics, she noted, are extremely helpful in preventing not just the spread of the coronavirus, but of the flu and other illnesses as well.

Dr. Tilson also explained several other important matters, including: the important difference between quarantine and isolation, who should and shouldn’t seek testing, how long the virus can reasonably be expected to survive on a surface exposed to the air, and why people should not start hording household goods.

Listen to the interview by clicking here.

#2 – It’s important not to panic and to keep things in perspective. As contagious and potentially deadly as the coronavirus is, we are already experiencing large numbers of deaths from other vexing causes. Here in North Carolina, for instance, 11 people died from the flu virus just this past week. That brings the official state death toll to 127 during this flu season. There have been more than 1,300 confirmed cases in the state and many others that were never diagnosed. National estimates put the number of flu deaths in the tens of thousands this season.

And while we’re discussing threats to public health that ought to be top national priorities, it’s worth remembering that there have already been thousands of Americans killed by guns and automobile accidents in the first two months of 2020.

This is not, of course, to minimize the problem in any way. The terrible toll the flu takes shows precisely why it’s important – if it’s at all possible – to limit and, hopefully, stamp out the coronavirus before it gains a real foothold.

#3 – Having more than a half-million North Carolinians without health insurance at this moment is a lousy situation. Opponents of Gov. Cooper’s push to close the state’s dangerous health insurance coverage gap by expanding Medicaid to cover several hundred thousand uninsured adults claim that the better course is to rely on lowering the cost of health care and expanding telemedicine. The current crisis makes clear why this is utter nonsense.

Right now, an immediate expansion of Medicaid has never made more sense – both for providing people direct access to primary health care and for keeping struggling rural hospitals open. People in rural areas need a place to go for acute care. Driving over to McDonald’s to get internet access in order to talk to a doctor 100 miles away is not the answer.

#4 – All workers should have access to paid sick days and family medical leave. Like Medicaid expansion, these are two other “no-brainer” policy changes that have been fully and effectively implemented in numerous locales and are only held back in North Carolina by the carping of so-called “free market conservatives” and lobbyists in the employ of shortsighted businessowners. Again, the last thing we need right now is for workers to put other members of the public at risk because they literally can’t afford to miss a few days of work.

#5 – Big pharmaceutical companies should be prevented from profiteering on the crisis. As veteran public health expert Lynn Carey explained in an excellent op-ed earlier this week for the Wisconsin Examiner, drug companies have frequently failed to develop useful and necessary vaccines expeditiously because of concerns about profitability. Right now, however, the federal government is affirmatively subsidizing big pharma to develop a vaccine for coronavirus at the same time that massive demand is sure to produce big profits. As Carey rightfully observes, the federal government should place conditions on the deal so that these giant corporations don’t get monopoly power to set the price for a vaccine.

The bottom line: The coronavirus is a serious threat to human wellbeing and it requires a strong and concerted response that’s driven by science, common sense, and care for our fellow human beings that puts people ahead of ideology and profits. Let’s keep pushing.