Fact-checking Public Officials on Coronavirus

DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf

During a Senate hearing about the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a DHS official was asked about the COVID-19 novel coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, the official had only limited concrete information at hand.

We hope the following re-imagined exchange will help inform policymakers and the public.

How many cases of coronavirus do we have right now in the US?

There have been 59 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US. Only 2 of those cases have been due to person-to-person spread in the US; the rest of the cases were contracted abroad.

And how many are you anticipating?

Because this is a new virus and a rapidly developing situation, estimating the number of Americans who may become infected with the COVID-19 virus is challenging.

On Tuesday, February 25th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, said:

“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in the US. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”

At a recent Congressional hearing, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense’s executive director Dr. Asha George stated (1:56:43 mark in video):

“We have to plan for the possibility that we have thousands of cases. In schools of public health, they often train us to look at the data that you’ve been provided, and assume that you don’t have the data – even here in the US – that you don’t have a comprehensive set of data, and then multiply. So we’re often taught to multiply by seven or eight times what you’ve been told. For every one case you see, there are seven or eight out there that you don’t. So that means actually we’d be looking at hundreds of thousands of cases. I think that’s the scale at which we should be planning.”

I agree with these expert public health professionals. We need to be planning at the scale of hundreds of thousands of Americans becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus. We will prepare, and we will persevere.

Is someone modeling that, do you have any way of guessing?

A number of different research groups and organizations are working on modelling the COVID-19 virus outbreak. For example, teams at Los Alamos National Laboratory have performed well when it comes to modelling previous outbreaks, such as flu and SARS, but they are still working on their model of this outbreak since it is a new coronavirus.

Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch estimates that within the coming year, 40 to 70 percent of the world’s population will be infected by the COVID-19 virus, many exhibiting mild disease, or even no symptoms. If the US were to follow that projection, about 130 to 230 million Americans would become infected.

How is the coronavirus transmitted?

If a person is around 6 feet from an individual – a “close contact” – who is infected and can spread COVID-19, the person is at risk of contracting the virus. This is because coronaviruses can spread when infected people cough or sneeze, sending respiratory droplets containing the virus sailing into others’ mouths or noses, which can then even be inhaled into the lungs.

What’s the mortality rate so far worldwide?

China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported the case fatality ratio at 2.3 percent within China, but experts believe it is probably less because it is very likely that some people who become infected with COVID-19 virus develop no or mild symptoms and do not seek medical care. Their cases will not be reflected in the reported number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, reducing the case fatality ratio below 2.3 percent. Models of the COVID-19 outbreak intended to account for missed cases estimate an infection fatality ratio between 0.3 and 1 percent.

What’s the mortality rate for influenza over the last 10 years in America?

The average influenza mortality rate over the last 10 years in the US is about 0.132%. 

The mortality rate ranged from 0.096% in 2018-2019 to 0.172% in 2010-2011.

Do we have enough face masks, or respirators, for the American people? How short are we?

However, major health agencies such as the CDC and WHO do not recommend that healthy individuals use face masks. Face masks are often not properly fitted and will not provide adequate protection for healthy members of the public. The only people who should be wearing masks are those working with infected patients and people who are sick who have to travel outside their homes.

Prestige Ameritech, the largest face mask producer in the country, explained that demand is about 1,000 times higher than normal and his employees are struggling to keep up. They have received requests for up to 100 million face masks, but have yet to receive a request from the U.S. government.

On February 25, HHS Secretary Alex Azar stated that there were not enough face masks to protect healthcare workers that could come in contact with the virus.

How far away are we from getting a vaccine?

Peter Marks, Director of the FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research said in an interview with STAT news that a vaccine that can be used in a large clinical trial or patient population is likely “months away.” However, it would take even longer to bring a workable vaccine to market.

Typically, vaccine development takes between two and five years, but the World Health Organization estimated on February 11 that a coronavirus vaccine could be produced in about 18 months. Vaccine production takes so long because pharmaceutical companies have to create an animal model of the disease, show that the potential vaccine triggers the right response in the immune system and that it is safe, prove its effectiveness in animal models, pass human clinical trials and be approved by the necessary regulatory bodies, and then be produced in a cost-effective, reliable way.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ collaboration with drugmaker Moderna has resulted in a trial COVID-19 virus vaccine that could be tested in people in a clinical trial at the end of April, with results expected in July or August.

Antiviral vs Vaccine: It is important to note that treatments for those who have already contracted COVID-19, like the antiviral, remdesivir, which had promising results in early cases, could be distributed earlier than a vaccine.

Who is lead on the US response to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus outbreak?

As of February 26, Vice President Pence was appointed as the head of the federal government’s coronavirus response. He named Ambassador Debbie Birx as his coronavirus response “coordinator.” HHS Secretary Alex Azar is in charge of the national coronavirus task force.

The other members of the task force include:

  • Robert O’Brien, National Security Advisor
  • Robert Redfield, CDC Director
  • Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director
  • Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security
  • Jay Butler, CDC Deputy Director for Infectious Diseases
  • Stephen Biegun, Deputy Secretary of State
  • Joel Szabat, Assistant Secretary of Transportation
  • Matthew Pottinger, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor
  • Robert Blair, Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to the Chief of Staff
  • Joseph Grogan, Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council
  • Christopher Liddell, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination
  • Derek Kan, Executive Associate Director, OMB