Roe urges abundance of caution during fight to curtail COVID-19 epidemic

From left, Congressman Phil Roe, Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Health, and United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams during an event held in Johnson City at the end of January. Roe took time last Friday to brief the local media on the status of the COVID-19 epidemic. PHOTO BY DAVE ONGIE

By Dave Ongie, News Editor

When Congressman Phil Roe was a practicing physician, he had a pretty simple philosophy every time he set foot in an operating room. We went in prepared for a train wreck and hoped for a train ride.

“I thought of everything in the world possible that could happen, and whether I prepared to take care of it,” Roe said during a conference call with local media on Friday. “Because you have human lives in your hands. That’s why we’re being so careful.”

Roe took time last Friday to walk the local media through the timeline of our federal government’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak, which was declared to be a pandemic last Wednesday by the World Health Organization. Efforts to stem the spread of the disease in the United States began in earnest last week as every major professional sports league suspended play while the NCAA halted spring sports and cancelled the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Theme parks were closed, large gatherings of people were discouraged, and colleges, universities and school systems around the country altered their schedules in an effort to slow the rate of new infections.

While reaffirming that COVID-19 thus far has had a very low mortality rate, particularly for younger folks, Roe said slowing the spread of the disease is vital to preventing an overload to our medical system.

“There was this huge spike in Italy, and it overwhelmed their system,” Roe said. “As we do more testing, that’s going to pick up. There’s no question we’re going to see more cases where we are, but if you can limit the speed of the rise of those cases, that doesn’t put pressure on your healthcare system.

“We can handle five or 10 people that come in. It’s when 500 people come into a place that you have very difficult problem.”

Roe was largely complimentary of the way the Trump administration has handled the health crisis thus far, but he did admit the United States got off to a slow start when it came to testing folks for COVID-19. That has made it difficult to assess just how many people in the United States have the virus and are at risk of transferring it to others. Roe said the fact that many young folks who get COVID-19 have very few symptoms, which further confuses the issue.

“For young people, the mortality rate is very, very low, but the problem is they can spread the disease,” Roe said, adding that the easy transmission of the virus puts elderly individuals and those with compromised immune systems at risk.

As steps are taken to slow the spread of the virus, Roe is encouraged with the rapid progress being made toward developing a vaccine to fight COVID-19. Roe said he met with representatives from pharmaceutical companies who said a vaccine may be ready for human testing in as little as a month.

“That’s unheard of to get it to the FDA, get that cleared and get testing started,” Roe said.

While the vaccine likely won’t be ready by the start of the next flu season, Roe said it is likely the vaccine will be available to the public a year from now.

In the short term, Roe was also encouraged with the step taken by President Donald Trump later in the day on Friday to declare a national emergency to help combat the virus. He was particularly pleased to hear more tests would be made available to the public.

“We are making a great effort as a country to keep Americans healthy from coronavirus,” Roe said in a statement following Trump’s announcement. “The President’s emergency declaration will only further our efforts to prevent the virus’ spread. As a physician, I was particularly pleased to hear that over a million new tests for coronavirus are set to be available next week. Making sure Americans have access to tests and the resources they need is critical to help us defeat this pandemic.”


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