Former OSHA chief: U.S. sitting on protocol to fight coronavirus
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar led a news conference about the federal government's response to the outbreak of coronavirus. The conference included CDC's Robert Redfield, left, Nancy Messonnier and Anthony Fauci from the NIH. | Patrick Semansky/AP

WASHINGTON—As the coronavirus migrates from China to other countries, Dr. David Michaels, a top U.S. public health specialist, says the U.S. is not implementing a plan to fight airborne viruses developed during the eight years he headed OSHA under President Obama.

What it would take, Dr. David Michaels told Peoples World in an exclusive telephone interview, is an emergency declaration from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration telling hospitals and other health care facilities to implement already developed anti-airborne-virus protection plans right now.

“When I was at OSHA,” which he led for all eight years of the Obama administration, “we started a process to protect workers from airborne infectious disease,” Michaels explained in the interview.

Those protections have been developed, and they’re similar to protections for workers and patients from bloodborne pathogens. But the anti-airborne disease protections haven’t been implemented under the Trump Administration which has been notoriously weakening regulatory agencies including the Environmental Protection Administration and OSHA.

“OSHA should be working on issuing that temporary emergency standard” to order health care facilities to undertake those protections, “if it (coronavirus) is pandemic,” said Michaels.

That standard would include how to prevent the virus from spreading via equipment, as well as from person to person, he added.

The comments from Michaels, now a professor of public health at George Washington University, came as the World Health Organization and other trackers report the virus – for which there is now no specific vaccine – has infected more than 17,000 people worldwide, the overwhelming majority of them in the Chinese province of Wuhan. Almost all others are people who traveled recently from Wuhan.

There were 11 reported cases in the U.S. so far, with all the patients hospitalized. That included the first-known transmission from one person who had the virus but without symptoms till recent days, to another: a couple, now both under hospital care, in Chicago. The wife came back from China, infected but without showing symptoms until after she arrived in the U.S. She fell ill, and her husband followed.

The coronavirus has killed several hundred people worldwide, none in the U.S. so far. The only death outside of China was in the Philippines, of a Wuhan native who had flown in before his infection became obvious. Dictatorial Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has cut off all travel with China.

The most common coronavirus symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are fever and lower respiratory illness. But even the CDC warns “fever may not be present in some patients, such as the very young, elderly, immunosuppressed, or those taking fever-reducing medication. Clinical judgment should be used to guide testing in these cases.”

Since the coronavirus takes up to 14 days to incubate within a person, others could be infected but not know it yet, health officials in other nations warned.

National Nurses United (NNU), the top union for registered nurses in the U.S., reinforced Michaels’s points in a summary of measures it expects from hospitals.

“Too often healthcare employers prioritize saving money over safe care and wait to act— this is unacceptable,” NNU said.

“Hospitals and other healthcare employers have the duty and responsibility to prepare ahead of time to protect staff and patients. And in situations like the current outbreak, to follow the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle states we should not wait until we know for sure that something is harmful before we take action to protect people’s health. In other words, your employer should prepare now, before a possible case arrives at your facility.”

Those preparations include educating health care workers about how to recognize potential cases, implement screening “to promptly identify patients with symptoms, travel history or exposure history that may mean” an infection, prompt isolation especially in rooms designed to deal with airborne infections, and providing respirators, gloves, gowns and other protective equipment for workers. NNU also wants hospitals “to place sufficient staff to care for patients safely.”

That’s a lot more than what some airlines are doing for their workers who deal with flights originating in China. Photos show China Airlines workers at Los Angeles International Airport – one of 11 airports U.S. officials are ordering incoming travelers from China to land at – wearing breathing masks and gloves. The airlines’ reluctance to act led the union representing American Airlines pilots to sue their carrier to force it to ground all flights to and from China before Feb. 9.

The coronavirus outbreak has produced drastic measures, inside and outside of China. Several cities in Wuhan, with a population of 11 million combined, are on lockdown. Chinese New Year celebrations were canceled. Hong Kong hospital workers threatened to strike unless and until the whole border with China was closed. The city’s Chinese-named governor shut all but two crossing points.

Airlines from at least six nations, including the U.S., cut off direct flights to and from China. Russia closed its border with China and also closed its other ports of entry – as far west as Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg – to Chinese nationals in transit. Kazakhstan also closed its border with China.

The coronavirus threat also produced xenophobia and anti-Chinese reaction in the U.S. even down to the local level. NBC reported the high school principal in Warwick, N.Y., canceled her Mandarin teacher’s school trip to take eighth and ninth graders to New York City’s annual Chinatown parade because of fear of the virus. There have been two cases in New York City. Both victims are hospitalized.

Other fear was on a much larger scale, directed at China. The World Health Organization criticized nations for cutting off travel and trade contacts. Contacts between medical specialists, including sending teams to China to help combat coronavirus, could help check its spread, WHO said.

GOP President Donald Trump contributed to the anti-Chinese fear. He told his mouthpiece, Fox, the U.S. “offered China help, but we can’t have thousands of people coming in who may have this problem, the coronavirus.”

“We’re gonna see what happens, but we did shut it down, yes,” Trump said of the U.S. travel ban to and from China.

One exception to his travel ban: A flight sent to Wuhan to evacuate some 140 U.S. personnel from the province. But like other returnees from China, they’ll be quarantined for two weeks – the virus’s estimated incubation period – on portions of four military bases in Texas, Colorado, and California.

Trump’s order prompted a sharp response from China. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chungyung told Associated Press the U.S. “hasn’t provided any substantial assistance” and created “panic.”

Other right-wingers, notably Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also went off the deep end. The U.S. should be “temporarily halting flights to and from China and implementing additional screening at all U.S. airports,” he said in a statement.

The Defense Department estimated it would need to quarantine 1,000 returnees, keeping them separate from the regular military on the bases. But DOD’s just housing them for two weeks. If any become ill, the Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to transport them to civilian hospitals.

And returnees from Wuhan are being admitted to the U.S., before being taken to the quarantine centers, at 11 selected airports, producing logistical nightmares for airlines and travelers at others.

Some officials are speaking out against the racism and xenophobia that accompanied the coronavirus outbreak and returnees. After Massachusetts hospitalized its first victim, a University of Massachusetts-Boston student who recently returned from Wuhan, city Mayor Marty Walsh warned on Feb. 1 against panic and fear.

“I want to remind everyone that all members of our community are valued and respected. On occasions like this, it is possible for fear to get the better of any of us. Let’s remember that viruses are no one’s fault and anyone can find themselves ill,” he said.

Take obvious precautions, Walsh, a union member, added, to prevent virus spread: Thoroughly wash your hands and cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.