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The U.S. can’t contain coronavirus, it just hopes to mitigate its impact

March 10, 2020, 5:53 PM UTC

The window for fully containing the coronavirus has passed in some parts of the U.S. and the White House will roll out plans later Tuesday to mitigate its impact.

Vice President Mike Pence is expected later Tuesday to roll out a wider mitigation strategy for places dealing with outbreaks, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said at a hearing in Washington on Tuesday.

“In general, we’re in a containment, blended mitigation,” Redfield said. “In some areas we’re in high mitigation.”

The mitigation plans, which have yet to be released by the White House, are an acknowledgment that efforts to track down and contain individual cases have failed in some places, and that the coronavirus is spreading from person-to-person outside the confines of quarantines and isolation.

Many of the measures are likely to be the types of steps that U.S. health officials have discussed for weeks, such as canceling large gatherings like sports matches, closing some schools, asking people to work from home, and taking steps to protect vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with underlying health conditions. Those actions could result in significant disruptions of daily life for some people.

“The United States was always going to see a substantial number of cases,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a separate event in Washington on Tuesday. Azar has been helping coordinate the federal response. His remarks are a departure from President Donald Trump’s public assessments of the situation, in which he has repeatedly said the U.S. had contained the virus.

Redfield said that hospitals had limited extra capacity at present. Because of a strong, late flu season, hospitals are at 95% capacity or higher.

“We really don’t have a lot of resilience in the capacity of our health-care system,” Redfield said. While most patients who get the coronavirus experience moderate to severe symptoms, some people need to be hospitalized and given support to help breathe. In Northern Italy, health workers there have described hospitals as swamped by the thousands of cases that rose up within a few weeks.

Hospitals typically have plans in place to repurpose beds and expand capacity to respond to emergencies.

The CDC plans to work with local governments on the plan, Redfield said. States including Washington, California, New York and Massachusetts are all dealing with significant clusters of disease, and have reported multiple cases of Covid-19, as the disease is called, without ties to known outbreaks or travelers.

In the early stages of an outbreak when the number of cases is small, health officials can focus on tracking down and isolating individual cases. It’s akin to stomping out a few embers that have jumped from a fire.

Redfield said the U.S.’s failure to quickly roll out tests for the virus had impeded the U.S.’s early efforts. Because of flaws with the original CDC tests, it took weeks for state and local labs to get working tests for the virus, hobbling their attempts to identify patients and isolate them.

“If you’re a week late,” Redfield told Congress, “it matters.”

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview on NPR that aired Tuesday that test capacity is increasing.

“Earlier on, because of some missteps that have been corrected, they were not allowed out there,” Fauci said. “But that has been corrected.”

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—What Xi Jinping’s visit to Wuhan says about China’s coronavirus recovery
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—Coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

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