Renowned epidemiologist is not labeling COVID-19 as a pandemic just yet.

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The coronavirus — or COVID-19 as it is now called — has spread from ground zero in China to 30 other countries, including South Korea, Iran, Italy and the United States. But it’s not a global pandemic yet, says the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations agency charged with overseeing public health.

According to WHO, COVID-19 has infected nearly 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700 as of Feb. 25. The respiratory virus, which presents with cough, fever and shortness of breath, is spread from person-to-person and may be spread by people who have no symptoms of the disease.

Dr. Jeffrey Band
Dr. Jeffrey Band

But now is not the time to panic, according to Dr. Jeffrey Band, a now semi-retired epidemiologist, the former chief of infectious diseases and international medicine at Beaumont hospital and an active member of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. He agrees with WHO that the outbreak should not be labeled a pandemic yet.

“A pandemic would mean the disease was spreading uncontrollably. That’s not the case,” Band said.

Band, who played key roles in investigating many infectious disease outbreaks during his career, added that he’s encouraged that the daily number of new reported cases in China, the epicenter of the disease, have been going down.

Experts are better able to deal with novel viruses today than they were in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, a coronavirus that killed fewer than 1,000 people. This time, scientists were able to identify the COVID-19 virus and characterize its genome in a matter of weeks instead of months.

“I think it portends to a much quicker development of a vaccine,” Band said. “There are already well over 200 papers on this virus that one can access, so there is a lot more information sharing and cooperation in that regard.”

The United States is well prepared to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19 and has a national, regional, state and local plan put into place for a worst-case scenario, he added.

“The lessons from the SARS outbreak — we have carried that forward,” he said. “In the U.S, we have triage, the means to contain the virus and supply supportive therapy. There are anti-viral medications that look promising and a vaccine is in development, although that will take some time.”

Nevertheless, he said the risk of a pandemic is “very concerning. Every country should be on heightened surveillance… If this virus were to move into less developed countries that lack healthcare infrastructure, that would be a whole new ballgame.

“There are so many things we’re still learning. It’s impossible to predict. We need to be prepared,” Band said. “I’m not panicked, although I would not travel to South Korea or China — I’d put those plans on hold.”

Band’s advice is to stay calm and take practical precautions. “Wash your hands,” he said. “That’s still the most effective way to prevent the spread of disease.”


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