Our lives have changed significantly as the coronavirus spreads across the country, but many health experts warn that the worst is yet to come. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with STAT senior writer Helen Branswell about what we can expect from the virus in the upcoming weeks and whether Americans are ready. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You've been awfully busy lately. I see the bylines going by, and the headline on your latest story: "Americans are underestimating how long coronavirus disruptions will last, health experts say." Why are we having such a hard time getting our heads around this, Helen?
Helen Branswell: Well, I think primarily because the messaging about it has been completely unclear. There was originally talk from the White House about lifting restrictions by Easter. And just on the weekend, the president announced that that probably wasn't going to be possible because of this surge of cases coming up, so he extended to the end of April. But in reality, people who are watching what this virus does and watching how long it takes to beat back transmission are saying it's going to take quite a bit longer than that, and people need to be ready for that.
Mathieu: Well, what are health experts telling you in terms of a period of time? I know that we can't pin this down — as Dr. Anthony Fauci keep saying, the virus determines the timeline. But we're talking months, not weeks, right?
Branswell: Yeah, probably. The issue is that there's no point in pulling out a calendar and circling a date. What you need to do is attack the virus, stop the spread and slow the spread substantially, to the point where hospitals can cope with the number of cases that are coming in and the growth of cases starts to decline in your area.
Earlier this week, Dr. Tom Frieden, who used to be the director of the Centers for Disease Control, had a press conference. He was talking about it's the data, not the date. You have to put in place the actions that will allow this virus to be stopped and then slowly, gradually start to lift some of the restrictions. But you can't do it until you have evidence that it's safe to do. Because otherwise, the minute you lift restrictions, cases will start surging back.
Mathieu: Helen, we're preparing for our own local surge here in Massachusetts. The governor is telling us it could start as soon as April 10. They're setting up field hospitals here, like they are in many areas around the country. Can you give us a sense of what this might look like — when we're putting beds in the convention center to prepare for an overwhelmed hospital system? What will that be like?
Branswell: Well, it won't be like anything anybody has seen for a century. If you've seen any of the pictures from the 1918 Spanish flu, those are the images that are burned into the brain and I think that's what we are going to be dealing with: very, very stressed health care settings and health care workers who are underprepared in terms of personal protective equipment. That's running out, and so they are having to make do and reuse multiple times masks and respirators that are not meant to be reused. So it's going to be a difficult time. There are going to be infections among health care workers, unfortunately, and they may not be able to save as many people as one would hope or would like under normal circumstances because of the sheer volume of cases.
Mathieu: We've got this new machine that apparently can disinfect and sterilize these masks, tens of thousands a day. The governor's office just [made the] announcement last evening, Helen. Is that a game changer?
Branswell: I don't know if it's a game changer, but it's certainly very welcome news. Ideally, you wouldn't want to be in a position where you had to deploy that kind of technology, but given that we are there, the notion that people could have their respirators rendered safe to reuse is good news. I was talking to a doctor last week who was talking about the fact that when they need to wear a respirator, they put it on their face. When they're finished, they carefully take it off because you can contaminate your hands if you don't take it off properly. Then they put it in a paper bag and then they carry it around with them until they next need it. That's really not ideal. So if you can actually have these things safely sterilized for re-use, that will be a welcome development.
Mathieu: Helen, we may hear today from the CDC or in the coming days a recommendation that people cover their faces — we're hearing that now in New York as well — with some sort of cloth mask. Do you think people will pay attention to that? Are we going to all be walking around looking like bank robbers the next couple of days?
Branswell: I'm not out a lot these days. I'm both busy for work and also very conscious about trying to limit the number of interactions I'm having with people. But when I do go out to pick up groceries, I see a lot of people wearing masks. In fact, I think at this point I see more people wearing some kind of covering over their noses and mouths than not. So, yeah, I do think it's going to be the new normal.
Mathieu: Bandanas, scarves, whatever people can get their hands on.
Mathieu: Will it matter?
Branswell: Well, the thinking behind the change in policy is not so much that it will protect the person wearing it, but that it will prevent the person wearing it from infecting others if that person is already infected. One of the really challenging features of this virus is that when people are infected, they can start to emit virus [and] become infectious to other people a day or two before they start to have symptoms. At that point, they might still be out walking their dog or sharing their groceries or whatever.
Mathieu: So covering up may be a good thing, in the end?
Branswell: Yes, exactly.