U.S. Coronavirus Quarantine And Travel Limits: Needed Protection Or Overreaction?

27 minutes ago

The Trump administration's aggressive efforts to protect Americans from the coronavirus are drawing both praise and criticism.

On Friday, the federal government temporarily banned entry into the United States for anyone traveling from China who isn't a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or an immediate family member of either.

In addition, any Americans returning to the U.S. from China's Hubei Province, which is the epicenter of the outbreak, will be quarantined for 14 days.

Some politicians and biosecurity experts are praising these steps. They say the actions are necessary because of the threat posed by the virus.

"Nobody likes quarantines. Nobody likes travel restrictions," says Kenneth Bernard, a biodefense consultant who served in the George W. Bush administration. "But nobody likes getting sick and dying from the virus either. We need to understand that this is potentially a very dangerous virus that is spreading very rapidly."

The virus has already sickened thousands and killed hundreds in China, and the toll is rising rapidly. In the U.S., only a small number of cases have been reported so far, mostly among travelers returning from China. But Bernard notes that there are many uncertainties, including how easily the virus spreads and how lethal it is.

"You have to take sometimes draconian measures just to protect the population," Bernard says.

But many public health experts worry that some of the steps are unnecessary, overly aggressive and could be counter-productive, especially the travel ban.

"I think that the Trump administration is sliding from complacency and over-confidence to panic and overreaction to a point where we're going instill panic and fear in the American public," says Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University. "We have to keep our head here and remain calm."

Gostin agrees that it probably makes sense to quarantine people who are clearly at high risk for having been exposed to the virus.

On Friday health officials announced that 195 people who had been evacuated from China last week were being quarantined for 14 days at an air force base in California.

This is the first time in 50 years the federal government is imposing its quarantine authority on Americans.

But other experts worry the administrations plans to quarantine additional travelers could strain already scarce public health resources.

"I think we're going to very quickly reach the upper limits of our capacity," says Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Some public health experts say they are also concerned about protecting the civil liberties of those being quarantined, especially because the CDC gained broader quarantine authorities about three years ago.

In addition, some say the prospect of being quarantined could end up hindering an effective response.

"It backfires because people head for the hills," says Wendy Parmet, a professor of health law policy at Northeastern University. "People don't call and seek health care when they might be becoming sick. And health care providers become fearful of treating patients because they don't want to get caught up in the quarantine."

But the travel ban is raising the biggest concerns.

Historically, critics say, travel restrictions haven't been effective. That's one reason the World Health Organization is advising against banning travel.

Parmet says that travel restrictions may give the appearance of "acting tough," but actually provides "false comfort that we can keep out germs by barring travel."

"We are deluding ourselves, and that's dangerous," Parmet says. "It just doesn't work that way."

The travel ban could alienate Chinese authorities, making it more difficult to get China to work with the rest of the world to get the outbreak under control, Parmet and others say.

The restriction could also make it difficult to get crucial personnel and supplies in and out of China, they say.

There's also concern that other countries may be less forthcoming about reporting to avoid being subjected to travel bans and trade restrictions.

All flights from China are being re-routed to 11 U.S. airports. And any U.S. citizens who have been in other parts of China in the past two weeks are being subject to screening and close monitoring for 14 days.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to bring in the latest on another major story that we are watching closely - coronavirus. The outbreak keeps intensifying. China is now reporting more than 2,800 new cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to more than 17,000. At least 360 people have died from this. The Philippines is reporting that country's first death, the first outside China.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in the U.S., at least three more coronavirus cases have been confirmed in California, bringing the total to at least 11 in the United States. The Trump administration is now imposing strong measures to try to protect Americans. These actions are drawing both praise and concern.

Let's bring in NPR Health correspondent Rob Stein, who's in Washington. Hi there, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: And Rob, just bring us up to date. I mean, it sounds like this outbreak really is spreading quickly.

STEIN: Yeah. And as of 5 p.m. last night Eastern time, the federal government started banning anyone traveling from China who isn't a U.S. citizen or an immediate family member of an American from entering the United States. And in addition to that, any Americans returning to the U.S. from China's Hubei province - that's the epicenter of the outbreak - are being quarantined for 14 days at military bases around the country. A planeload of people who came back last week are already quarantined at an Air Force base in California.

This is the first time in 50 years the federal government is using its quarantine authority. And U.S. citizens who have been in any other parts of China in the past two weeks are being subject to screening at airports and close monitoring for 14 days. And as of early this morning, all flights from China are now being rerouted through 11 airports. So this is all pretty aggressive, unprecedented stuff.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, a quarantine is a huge deal - right? - I mean, for U.S. health officials to take that step. What are experts saying about that response?

STEIN: Yeah. So you know, most of the public health experts I've talked to over the last few days say some of these steps do make sense given how many uncertainties there are about this virus and how dangerous it might be - that, you know, quarantining people who are at high risk of having been exposed to the virus, that might be a smart idea, although they quibble about some of the logistics and how it's being done. But many are really worried about some of these steps, particularly the travel ban - that it might, you know, just go too far and actually be counterproductive. Here's Lawrence Gostin from Georgetown University.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: I think that the Trump administration is sliding from complacency and overconfidence to panic and overreaction to a point where we're going to instill panic and fear in the American public. We have to keep our head here and remain calm.

GREENE: I mean, panic, fear - what other concerns are there exactly with implementing such a strict travel restriction?

STEIN: So you know, critics say, historically, travel restrictions simply just, you know, haven't worked. That's why the World Health Organization is advising against banning travel. I mean, the critics say that it could actually make it a lot harder to get this thing under control if countries start closing borders. With - China could stop, you know, cooperating with the rest of the world to get this outbreak under control. And it could be harder to do things like get people and supplies in and out of countries to fight the outbreak. And where could this lead? You know, if the U.S. starts banning people from other countries, the fear is they could start hiding cases.

GREENE: That's NPR's Health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks a lot.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.