Obama's Ebola czar says coronavirus infections will 'explode' in next few weeks, won't decrease until May

Ron Klain, who served as President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar,” says Americans need to prepare for a massive spike in coronavirus cases and deaths over the next few weeks. 

“We’re really at the inflection point here, where this disease is really going to explode in the U.S.,” Klain said in an interview with Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast. While the number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases is already doubling every three days, Klain said, he expects new cases to “accelerate further as we finally start to put some testing on the line and we start to really understand how big a problem we have — and I think it’s a very big problem.”

In 2014, Obama appointed Klain to coordinate the U.S. response to that year’s Ebola outbreak. Klain was also the chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden and is now an adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign. He said it is too late for the U.S. to control a massive spike in new infections over the next few weeks because of testing kit shortfalls and other planning failures.

The American health care system is already running near capacity, Klain said. If thousands of severely ill coronavirus patients descend on hospitals at once, they could overwhelm the system. That in turn could lead to many more deaths than would have occurred had the U.S. been more prepared for the virus, which first emerged in China in November. 

“Particularly right now, at the end of flu season, things like ventilators, respirators, emergency room beds, care for respiratory patients — it’s already straining the system, and then you add hundreds of thousands of intensely ill patients to that and we’re going to see dire consequences in our hospitals,” Klain said. “We’re going to see that in terms of hospitals running out of beds to treat patients.”

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 10,755 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. and 154 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. 

Frontline medical workers are already reusing protective gear because hospitals have run out of masks and other basic necessities, Klain said. Worse, the health care system is struggling to treat patients not only for coronavirus but also for other health problems because doctors and nurses are becoming infected with the virus as well. 

“There’s a hospital in Philadelphia that this week shut down its labor and delivery ward because all the labor and delivery nurses had coronavirus,” Klain said. “We’re going to see this as health care workers get sick, as hospitals get filled — it’s going to have an impact on all aspects of our health care delivery in the United States.”

Despite the social distancing measures that have been widely adopted by Americans in recent weeks, Klain still expects a dramatic jump in confirmed coronavirus cases because many people are unknowingly carrying the virus. 

“We’re in this mess because we didn’t do enough to prepare for this mess when we had ample warning signs that it was coming,” Klain said, before adding that he is alarmed by the continued shortage of coronavirus tests. The U.S. is still having difficulty procuring test kits and now has fewer than 100,000 of them on hand. 

Klain also said it is much too late to contain the virus in the U.S. because very few people could be tested in January and February, when it was already spreading. 

Ebola coordinator Ron Klain listens as President Barack Obama speaks to the media in 2014 about the government’s Ebola response. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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“Hopes of isolating it seem very remote,” Klain said. “We still have major states where they don’t have the test supplies. ... That means that people aren’t getting tested, and when they’re getting tested they’re waiting days, literally days, to get results.”

Officials are now “trying to avoid this giant spike all at once that really crashes the health care system,” Klain said. But that will result in the crisis lasting longer: “Lowering the peak means extending the duration.”

Klain said he is concerned about the lack of ventilators and respirators available, and said that until Wednesday little had been done to ensure an increase in production. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on Wednesday, which will allow the White House to force medical supply companies to produce needed equipment more quickly. However, those supplies will take time to distribute. 

“To date, the Trump administration has taken a laissez-faire approach to the supply chain,” Klain said. “President Trump told governors basically, ‘Hey, go out there and find supplies as you can,’ as opposed to working with the private sector and the big producers to route the supplies to the places where they’re needed the most.”

As a result, Klain said, the hospitals that have enough ventilators will likely be those with the “best relationships with the producers. Those may be hospitals that really need them urgently; they may not be hospitals that really need them urgently.” Even today, he said, no one from the White House appears to be taking charge of the supply chain issues and coordinating a unified response. 

The measures undertaken to slow the spread of the virus are harming the economy, but Klain said that can’t be avoided. Singapore has been relatively successful at containing the spread of the coronavirus with far less rigorous social distancing mandates, he said. But Singapore “brought the disease under control better and faster by doing the things we screwed up, which was testing and identifying chains of transmission.”

“Using traditional public health measures, the kind that we used in fighting Ebola, where you see who has it, where are they spreading it, getting those people contacted, isolating those people — that's what we should have done,” Klain said. “And I think we still have to catch up.”

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