What are the biggest lessons we've learned from the pandemic?
We need to build surge capacity. When it comes to defense, we constantly operate under surge capacity — being ready and able to wage battle at a moment's notice. We don't think of pandemics the same way, and yet they pose a bigger threat than just about anything else. We need to have capacity to handle significant surges in patients: hospital beds, ICU beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment. And yet in this country and a lot of other countries around the world, we have decreased our capacity. Hospital beds are expensive. If you keep them empty, that is a significant cost. What we've seen here is that the significant cost can be worth it.
Any other lessons?
We need a pandemic surveillance team. We used to have one after and during Ebola. It was dismantled a couple of years ago. I think it's human nature, even in your own personal health, that if you don't see a threat, you tend not to deal with it — but that doesn't mean it's not there.
How has COVID-19 changed medicine?
Telehealth has been around for a long while. This virus has turbo-boosted telehealth, and I think we'll be using telehealth in a way we have never used it before. It will affect the medical system overall.
What has been the most surprising thing about covering this virus?
So far in my life, this is the biggest health concern we have faced. Dr. [Anthony] Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] reminded me that one of the first stories I did as a journalist was with him. We were talking about HIV/AIDS at this point, 20 years ago. At the end of our interview, I asked him: “What do you really worry about?” He said, with his gravelly, assured voice: “What I worry about is a respiratory virus that is lethal and more contagious than the flu.” And in 2017 he said, “There will be a surprise pandemic within the next several years.”
How is the coronavirus different from other health crises you've covered?
You get these circulating pathogens — like Ebola or SARS or MERS — but they're usually either highly lethal or contagious, not both. It is very unusual. I haven't seen it in my lifetime: one that is both highly contagious and lethal.
Some people say the cure is proving worse than the disease. What do you make of that?
What they mean is that the stay-at-home orders will have a certain impact on our economy, on our way of life, and that's really hard on people. I'm empathetic to that way of thinking. But the cure is not worse than the disease; the cure keeps the disease from becoming worse. For most people, even if they get the virus, they may get very sick for a period of time — it's tough for them — but they're going to recover. We can rebound from both the public health and the economic impact of this. But by failing to act right now, we also threaten to worsen both of these things. It's hard for people to see. It's an unseen enemy here, the virus. This is harder for people to get their arms around.
How is this virus affecting rural and urban America differently?
There's no question that in urban areas, because of the densely populated nature, those were going to be the places where you saw the virus emerge first and emerge quickly. But in even sparsely populated rural areas, you're starting to see the same curves that you see in those hot spots. Hopefully, in some of these rural areas, they are able to prepare right now and keep up. I worry that that's not happening. Even if you're in a rural area, the same stay-at-home orders have to apply.
What during the crisis has inspired you most?
I was talking with a friend, saying I'd always imagined from a science fiction standpoint that the thing that would galvanize the world would be aliens. Like in sci-fi movies, all of a sudden the world is all in this together. In no way do I mean to minimize the tragedy, but you do see people coming together in a way that I don't think you often see.
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You've got your three young daughters and wife. How are things at home?
My daughter had her 11th birthday in March, and we obviously had to cancel any kind of party. It forced a really important conversation about why we do these things, the higher good and how to be more selfless. It's a tough conversation at such a young age, but a really important one. If you had described this to me [beforehand], I would have said this is going to crush them. Instead, my 11-year-old busied herself all day yesterday making masks because she heard me talk about masks on TV. She knew we couldn't use hospital-worker masks, and so she started making cloth ones.
Do you see a path to normalcy? Are you optimistic?
I think there will be a return to normalcy at some point. I don't know how long that will take. We don't know for sure that there won't be a second wave of illness. But yes, we'll see a sense of return to normalcy in places around the world, and I think that will happen here.
What are your insights on a vaccine?
The work on a vaccine got underway very quickly. There are probably dozens of candidates for the vaccine already. Basically, you're looking at this strand of genetic material and trying to create a great vaccine from that by either using a portion of the virus that's been activated or creating a genetically modified virus and using that. The issue is that even after you have the great candidate, it has to go through these trials to test for safety and effectiveness. You just can't know without the trials. That's one thing that modern technology hasn't been able to speed up. The body still reacts to things the way it does, and it takes a certain amount of time to gauge that reaction. Dr. Fauci said it would be at least a year. It could be even longer than that.
Meanwhile, what about treatment?
Again, a lot of research is going on. There are many therapeutic candidates currently being investigated. The problem is that false hope can be dangerous when people hear someone talking about a new therapy — whether on the internet or wherever — and they think this is it and they start taking it. That's a false hope. And it's worth remembering that hope is important, but false hope can be dangerous. We have to be really careful.