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Awakening to Peril Of New Diseases

The U.S. health care system — and thus, public policy regarding it — is coming under fire because of COVID-19. Among complaints are that there are not enough COVID-19 test kits, not enough ventilator machines to help sufferers breathe, no vaccine to be available quickly and not enough hospital beds to handle the potential number of coronavirus patients.

In one way, such criticism simply is unrealistic and unmerited. COVID-19 became a global pandemic very quickly. Answer this honestly: Had you even heard of the disease three months ago?

Developing vaccines safely requires months of research, then more time to produce them in large quantities. U.S. pharmaceutical companies are working on the problem at top speed. The same goes for medicines that may alleviate the symptoms of COVID-19.

As for medical ventilators, they are not cheap. Prices start at about $1,500 for simple models and go up from there. Normally, the need for them is limited. As is the case with other types of medical equipment, hospital managers buy what they expect to need. No one foresaw the increased need for ventilators, but rest assured, manufacturers are producing them as quickly as possible.

As for hospital beds, the same rule holds true: Hospitals are built to handle normal needs, not a sudden spike such as is occurring now.

The bottom line is that predicting pandemics such as COVID-19 is impossible. Reaction is the order of the day, and no nation on earth is better equipped than ours to do that.

All that said, COVID-19 is a wakeup call concerning emerging diseases. There are hundreds of different opportunities for evolving viruses and bacteria to harm human beings — and humankind has been too complacent regarding the threat. More attention, more research and more funding needs to be devoted to the problem. Perhaps this close call — COVID-19 is nowhere near as bad as some historic emerging diseases such as the “Spanish flu” of 1918 or the bubonic plague that earned the name “black death” during the 14th century — will wake us up to the peril.

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