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Michael Krull: I helped lead US H5N1 Avian Flu efforts – here’s my take on Coronavirus prep

Some commuters at Union Station adorn breathing masks. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times/TNS)
March 03, 2020

Many Americans are feeling uneasy watching the stock market gyrations in reaction to the concerns over a global coronavirus pandemic.  Americans are unsure what, if anything, they can do to prepare. However, this is not the first time the United States has had to prepare a strategy to protect our citizens against the threat of a deadly disease.   

In 2005, the United States was facing a similarly serious public health challenge, the threat of an outbreak of an influenza virus strain – the H5N1 avian flu – another strain that originated in China with the potential to cause a global pandemic.  H5N1 had the potential to emerge with little or no warning based on the migratory patterns not of business travelers and tourists, but of birds. On November 1, 2005, President George W. Bush issued the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, and Mike Leavitt, Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) followed with the release of the HHS Pandemic Influenza Plan.  

In January 2006, I was a consultant to HHS and my team and I were tasked with implementing a series of pandemic planning workshops in each of the states and territories of the United States.  Between January and July 2006, HHS held 55 pandemic summits throughout the United States. 

Through this series of localized events, HHS communicated key preparedness messages and fostered a dialogue with state and local officials.  As a result, healthcare professionals in local, state, and Federal agencies were now in communication with each other, allowing for quick reaction and greater coordination of efforts on a national level.  

Another key component of these planning summits was to educate citizens about the need to personally prepare for a pandemic.  A quick Google search will provide you with preparedness checklists for families, small businesses, etc.; it is good to be prepared for emergencies and natural disasters anyway, so use the excuse of the coronavirus to prepare yourself.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website is a good source of information on the coronavirus, and also has preparedness checklists.    

Due to the planning initiated 14 years ago, local governments and governmental entities are prepared now.  For example, our local school district has reached out stating that they are reviewing their existing pandemic plan.  Many businesses are dusting off their plans as well. The attempt by some to inject fear for political gain belies the reality that the American people are experiencing as we go about preparing to contain and mitigate the effects of the coronavirus.  

While information on the exact nature of the coronavirus is cloudy, it has been reported in the New York Times that roughly 80 percent of the cases in China had mild symptoms, and made full recoveries.  That is good news.  

On Wednesday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said that what the Trump administration did early in the outbreak was “to buy the United States valuable time,” to contain and battle the virus.  These measures include:

  • Stopped non-U.S. citizens from coming in from China
  • Screened people coming from infected areas
  • Quarantined people coming from hot zones
  • Provided funding to start work on a vaccine 
  • Sourced suppliers for hospital gowns and masks
  • Met with and briefed governors during the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, DC
  • Requested funding from the Congress

The United States is today much better prepared to deal with the current crisis because of the Bush administration’s decisive steps taken in 2006.  It is clearly apparent that the Trump administration is building on that foundation and is aggressively coordinating an all-of-government response to this threat.   

The United States rises to every challenge.  While we cannot diminish the severity and virility of this or any disease, we know that we have successfully tackled issues like this before and will do so again in 2020.  

Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.

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