Coronavirus: We have a limited time to act, here’s what China did

Weeks into the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, countries in the West are watching their new infection rate rise higher each day. But in the country where the virus originated – China – there has been a sharp reduction in new cases.

What can explain that?

The decline in new cases in China is being attributed to aggressive, early measures taken by the Chinese government to clamp down on citizens in the geographic areas where the disease is thought to have first originated.

In addition to a quarantine of the city of Wuhan, the Chinese government is tracking its citizens’ movements, asking neighbors to watch people who are tempted to break the quarantine, and launched hundreds of teams to trace confirmed cases.

Some people are suggesting the US should mimic some of China’s early response to the virus.

Aggressive response

While some are skeptical of the news of a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases in China, a medical research team organized by the World Health Organization that traveled there in February published a report lauding the Chinese government’s efforts in curbing the spread of the disease.

The report released on Feb. 28 from the WHO group, which included 13 scientists from foreign countries and 12 Chinese scientists, cataloged a drop in the number of new cases while they were in the country.

According to the study, on Feb. 10, the first day the team was in the country, China reported 2,478 new cases of COVID-19. By the time the team left two weeks later, the daily number of new cases was down to 409.

The team’s leader credited China’s aggressive measures for the decline in the number of new cases.

“Hundreds of thousands of people in China did not get COVID-19 because of this aggressive response,” Bruce Aylward told journalists in Geneva last week. Aylward is a Canadian WHO epidemiologist who led the mission.

“China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” Aylward’s report says.

The measures, however, have been described as “draconian” by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, though he says they have been successful in reducing the number of new cases.

"Their efforts have been draconian, something we never would be able to do here," said Fauci, who is a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. "But even though there's a lot of things that have unintended negative consequences of that ... I think they prevented a broader spread."

Mandatory quarantine

The Chinese government put some 50 million people under mandatory quarantine in the Hubei province and offered financial incentives for people who inform on anyone under quarantine trying to break the law by leaving their homes.

Fauci testified before Congress Wednesday and told lawmakers that while he can’t see the measures working in the U.S. that stronger measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 are necessary because the virus outbreak is "going to get worse.”

Only two things will likely make a difference, Fauci testified: controlling the number of people who are infected coming into the U.S. and mitigating the virus within the country.

Fauci warned over the weekend that some stricter measures to isolate those who are infected might be considered.

As it stands now, the federal government has implemented travel bans from select countries. Other measures, such as banning large gatherings, have fallen to state governors.

China’s most effective measures

The WHO report found the following measures taken by China proved to be the most effective against the virus and may have given the country more time to fight COVID-19.

The Chinese government:

  • Put at least 50 million people under mandatory quarantine since Jan. 23, when it locked down the city of Wuhan and nearby cities in Hubei province.
  • Asked people in areas near Hubei province to quarantine themselves if they felt ill.
  • Asked people in neighborhoods to monitor the movements of the self-quarantined.
  • Are rewarding citizens financially for reporting those who fail to follow quarantine orders.
  • Built two hospitals dedicated to COVID-19 treatment in about a week in Wuhan.
  • Sent health care workers from around the country to Hubei to help care for the sick.
  • Launched 1,800 teams to trace confirmed cases.
  • Implemented “social distancing” measures throughout the country, which include closing schools, businesses and theaters, and canceling sporting events.
  • Required people to wear a mask if they go outside.
  • Tracked people’s movements using two mobile phone apps, AliPay and WeChat. If someone who has been confirmed as being infected with COVID-19 tries to travel, authorities would likely know because AliPay has all but replaced cash within China.

Whatever the rest of the world does, Fauci, Aylward and others say fast action is needed.

“The single biggest lesson is: speed is everything,” Aylward said. “And you know what worries me most? Has the rest of the world learned the lesson of speed?”

What is the United States doing to try to stop the spread of COVID-19?

The U.S. has some 1,000 confirmed cases, with at least 31 people who have died from the virus. In addition to the federal government’s restriction on travel to this country, President Donald Trump has asked Congress for a payroll tax holiday that would give consumers some extra money in their paychecks to help defer expenses if they are forced to be away from work or have to pay for child care if a school is closed.

Some schools have been closed. Schools in Georgia’s Fulton County were shuttered this week, as was a school in Florida’s panhandle and others across the nation.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced a “containment area” within a 1-mile radius in New Rochelle, New York. The National Guard has been deployed to the containment area to help with food delivery and with the cleaning of public spaces within the area. Large gatherings have been banned and schools, churches and community centers will be closed for two weeks starting Thursday.

Gatherings of more than 1,000 people have been banned in Santa Clara County in California.

Washington State on Wednesday banned gatherings of more than 250 people.

Here is what other countries are doing to fight the spread of the virus.

  • Italy: On Monday, Italy Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared all of Italy a “red zone.” People should stay home, Conte said, except for work and any emergency. Schools, universities and theaters are closed. Bars and restaurants must close by 6 p.m. daily. If Italians want to travel to another town, they must sign a police form that says they are traveling for health reasons, an emergency or work.
  • Iran: Public gatherings in major cities have been canceled. Schools are closed and screening of air travelers has been implemented. Public gathering places and transit areas are being disinfected.
  • South Korea: The nation’s schools are closed until March 22, and people are being encouraged to stay home. South Korea’s testing program has been exceptional. According to National Public Radio, the country has 50 drive-thru screening clinics where people can get a medical exam and have a sample taken in just 10 minutes. Tens of thousands are being tested daily. Businesses are being subsidized to accommodate employees who need time off.
  • Spain: Schools, daycare centers and universities in the areas of the country most affected by the virus have been closed and will remain so for two weeks. Flights between Spain and Italy have been suspended, and sporting events will be played without live audiences in attendance.
  • France: There is now a nationwide ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people, except for public transit. National sporting events, such as the Paris Marathon, have been postponed. In four areas of the country, there is a ban on all public gatherings areas, such as community group meetings and markets; church services have been canceled. The government has closed some schools and is distributing masks to those who want them.
  • Germany: The German government is encouraging the cancellation of events that draw more than 1,000 people. Germany’s top soccer league will play games with no fans in the stadium.
  • Japan: Japan established extra border control measures that all but ban travelers from China and South Korea until April.
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