WASHINGTON — The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday downplayed a fellow CDC official’s warning that spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the U.S. is inevitable, saying she misspoke.
CDC Director Robert Redfield told Capitol Hill lawmakers Thursday that Dr. Nancy Messonnier’s statement Tuesday belied the fact that risk remains low.
“I think what Dr. Messonnier was trying to say — I think it maybe could have been done much more articulately from what the American public heard — was she was trying to say it’s also a good time for us to prepare if we have to go to more mitigation,” Redfield told a House subcommittee.
He added: “We’re still committed to get aggressive containment, and I want the American public to know at this point that the risk is low.”
Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, had warned: “We expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness. … Disruption to everyday life might be severe.”
President Donald Trump contradicted Messonnier in a press conference from the White Housing briefing room Wednesday, telling reporters: “I don’t think it’s inevitable. It probably will. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level.”
The president reportedly fumed about Messonnier’s warning, blaming it for the economic repercussions that ultimately saw the stock market lose over 3,000 points this week.
Redfield acknowledged rapid spread of the virus outside of China — in South Korea, Italy and Iran — but said other jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore demonstrated that widespread infection was not inevitable.
“The risk to the American public is low. We have an aggressive containment strategy that really has worked up to this time, 15 cases in the United States. Until the last case that we just had in Sacramento we hadn’t had a new case in two weeks,” he said, referring to a case diagnosed Wednesday in California. That person has no known contact with an infected person.
“In some countries this has moved very quickly, like we saw in Korea now, where we had more cases in Korea in the last 24 hours than we had in all of China. We’ve seen in Italy, it’s moving fast, in Iran, it’s moving fast,” Redfield said. “But other countries have really used a containment and a blended mitigation strategy like Singapore and Hong Kong and they have really limited the spread after the initial introduction from China.”
Redfield said panicked Americans should not be buying medical-grade masks, saying that doing so could make it more difficult for medical professionals to acquire the protective gear. He said that an aggressive response could prevent risk to the public.
“We’re of the point of view that we’re still in an aggressive containment mode, which is dependent on early case recognition, isolation, and contact tracking that now is going to be looking to identify these community introductions and practice public health to minimize them,” Redfield said.
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