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Disaster Preparedness Expert Explains What We Know About COVID-19 And Coronavirus


We're going to begin right now talking about what we know so far about coronavirus. Dr. Irwin Redlener is the director of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and he joins us now. Good morning.

IRWIN REDLENER: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just quickly, I want to get your response to what we've seen happen at airports overnight - people crammed for up to seven hours waiting to get through Customs and Immigration because of screenings. How does that look from a disaster preparedness point of view?

REDLENER: Yeah. Well, you know, what what's happening now in general - I'm going to get to the airports in a second - is that we're getting recommendations from public health experts about what we need to do to control the spread of this virus and keep people from getting sick. But then we have the reality of the practical implications of virtually every single decision that is made, for example - how many people should be in a crowd, who should be screened coming back into the United States, what should we do about domestic airports - I mean domestic flights, which also...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many questions.

REDLENER: Yeah. I mean, this - the policy that may seem like the good idea, the right strategy when we're sitting around our, you know, conference tables - which we shouldn't be doing anyway right now - but when we do, we'll say, OK, well, we're going to close the schools in a particular community - which we may need to do in all communities. But the implications of such a, you know, announcement or new policy has tremendous hardship connected with it. And the same with the airports - if we have backups and backlogs of people waiting to get screened, that means we got a lot of people hanging around together, which is sort of the exact opposite of what we'd prefer people do in terms of separating from others and avoiding close contact.

So this is really where we have the clash of the academics versus the realities of people's lives and the economy. And you know, we're worried about all aspects of this. This is why one of the things I've been very concerned about is that a lot of these policy decisions are being made by, you know, state and local political leaders who are really struggling to figure out how they should respond to whatever news there is about the current status of the coronavirus.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's right. It - there seems to be a lot of people doing a lot of different things in different places. And the public is confused, quite frankly.

REDLENER: They're extremely confused. And I think that what we're going to have to do is figure out a better way of getting communications from the federal government. You know, I've been - and many of us been deeply concerned about the messaging that's coming from the top. You know, so - and I think what we're going to have to do is figure out how we're going to manage this lack of consistent information that's coming from federal officials.

So you know - and let me give you a couple of examples. So we have the mayor of Seattle saying no crowds bigger than 250. We have the mayor of New York saying no crowds bigger than 500. We have Israel - the whole country of Israel using a way lower number to limit people - the size of people - the number of people who can gather in any place at any time. And this is...


REDLENER: ...Deeply problematic. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the - I mean, we don't have much time. But what is the right answer? I mean, we're getting more and more news about the coronavirus. We're trying to figure out what it is, what it does, who is most at risk.

REDLENER: And you know - exactly. And we haven't even talked about the readiness of America's hospitals to accommodate what is going to be an onslaught of patients for the next few weeks is what many of us are predicting. So we're kind of flying by the seat of our pants in a situation where we need a lot more guidance, a lot more consistency from the federal government. We're watching these press conferences where we're getting all kinds of opinions, a lot of happy talk about how things are under control. And it's a serious problem - one of the more serious social problems that the United States has faced in memory.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Irwin Redlener. He's the director of the National Center of Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. Doctor, thank you very much.

REDLENER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.