A new Coronavirus is the cause of COVID-19, a worrisome new disease outbreak sweeping the globe. It’s one Indiana and all other states must prepare for.
As Indiana State Health Commissioner in the late 1980’s, I navigated a similar public health threat when we struggled as a state, and as a nation, with our response to HIV/AIDS. Then, we were frequently mired in fear, misinformation and distrust.
When Ryan White, an Indiana teenager diagnosed with HIV, tried to attend school, many parents’ fears drove them to demand Ryan’s isolation despite the best evidence showing that their children weren’t at risk. His family faced venomous personal attacks, with shots fired at their home, and were ultimately forced to relocate. After intensive public outreach to educate parents, his new school welcomed Ryan. As a state, we learned from early mistakes.
Coronavirus is different than HIV, with a different form of transmission. However, the need for public education is just as important.
Our response to Coronavirus will test us, both as a state and as a nation. First and foremost, like HIV, we must remember that the virus is the enemy, not the people with the virus.
The Coronavirus outbreak will spread; cases have already been confirmed in our neighbor Illinois. We don’t know how severe the virus will be as it reaches us, but planning is critical during this early stage. That means we need to immediately create a highly-collaborative, public-private partnership between health care leaders, business and the media. It is crucial that decisions are made based on the facts available, free from bias and without filter, to instill a level of trust. We need intense preparation, not panic.
The National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Food and Drug Administration are the best sources for accurate information. These are sources we can trust over those, like the Vice President, who have no medical background or experience in managing a national public health crisis of this magnitude.
Here, and nationwide, we must increase capabilities for screening and accurate diagnosis. Health care professionals must adopt a high index of suspicion, and when criteria are met, patients should be immediately referred for the appropriate diagnostic evaluation and laboratory confirmation. Today the only real “tools” we have are isolation and supportive care for people with known exposure, and self-quarantine of those with possible exposure. An effective vaccine is a minimum 12-18 months away, and then additional months or years will be required for production and distribution on a global scale.
So, what should Indiana do, that doesn’t duplicate efforts at the federal level?
Rapidly create the Indiana Coronavirus Leadership Group, with representation from health care, state and local government, labor, business, education, law enforcement and the public. This should include individuals with deep knowledge of the special needs of high-risk populations. The group will determine the priorities for the necessary working groups who will help navigate access to care issues on top of the pressing health care problems we currently face. They’ll also help negotiate problems specific to institutions where people are confined, and their mobility limited, and help respond to the many challenges ahead we can’t yet predict.
The group will advise the Governor, state and local officials, and most importantly the public, of its findings and recommendations for policy and appropriations.
To ensure widespread distribution of information, the group should hold public meetings at multiple locations across the state. A coalition of Indiana’s leading foundations and charitable institutions should lead the funding to guarantee oversight and prevent mismanagement. While the group’s membership should be diverse and representative of our state, it must also be limited in size to ensure effectiveness.
Coronavirus has already created unprecedented challenges for the stability of our nation. People must have confidence that decisions are made with their best interest in mind; free from political prejudice and personal gain. Indiana, the “Crossroads of America,” is at a crossroads. Inaction or incomplete action is unacceptable. We must act decisively and urgently to contain the spread of Coronavirus. Let’s do it now. Let’s do it right.