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Let’s Not Be Surprised Again by an Epidemic

COVID-19 could have been far worse in West Virginia, though 74 deaths and a ravaged economy are bad enough. What about next time? How do we prepare for the next biological invader?

One thing we don’t do is make the mistake the military so often is accused of, which is planning to fight the last war. COVID-19 is especially deadly for older people with pre-existing medical conditions. The Spanish Flu of 1918 targeted apparently healthy people in the prime of life. The next virus — or, perhaps, bacteria — may be very different.

It’s not too early to begin planning for the next epidemic. A few ideas:

n More than 1,900 cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed in our state as of Friday. Yet not a single one had occurred in Doddridge and Webster counties. Why?

n West Virginia University, specifically its Health Sciences division, has been an incredible resource in many ways. To name just one: WVU researchers, working with multiple partners, may have come up with a way to predict the onset of COVID-19 in a person three days before symptoms show.

Gov. Jim Justice and legislators may have to come up with ways to trim state spending as a result of the epidemic. Consider increasing WVU Health Sciences funding.

n COVID-19 has been particularly deadly in nursing homes and other long-term care centers. West Virginia has been something of a model in preventing deaths in nursing homes — but we can do better.

At the first indication another deadly outbreak is at the gates, our long-term care facilities — and prisons — need to be walled off from the outside. One possibility is writing into employee contracts that a time may come when a core group of staffers must live on campus, without contacts outside who may transmit a disease to vulnerable people inside. As an incentive, workers could be paid 50% more for such service. The state’s Rainy Day Fund could cover that.

n Speaking of which, the emergency fund is a valuable defense against a crash in local and state government revenues, because of a disease-related shutdown. The Rainy Day Fund will be drawn down during coming months. It must be built back up.

n What about stockpiles of necessities such as face masks and ventilators? By all means, West Virginia should establish — and keep replenished — a personal protective equipment stockpile. As for more expensive things such as ventilators, let’s rely largely on Uncle Sam. What funds we do have in that regard ought to be used to buy other types of medical equipment that may be needed to battle other diseases — and which the folks in Washington can be expected to ignore.

n Let’s cough up a few bucks to help educators find better solutions to at-home learning — and help them expand the really good ideas, such as “mobile hotspots” for internet access, that they have employed during the past several weeks.

No one saw COVID-19 coming, it has been said. That isn’t true. Infectious disease experts have warned of such a pandemic for years.

Fool me once, shame on you, we say sometimes. Fool us twice with an outbreak — shame on us.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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