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CDC 'Vaccine Expert' On Coronavirus Outbreak In The U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The number of Americans infected with the coronavirus keeps growing; so does the number of states with confirmed cases. We're going to talk now with someone who is on the frontlines, Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thank you for taking the time today.

NANCY MESSONNIER: Sure; happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot of confusion about when people should get a test, whether they should self-quarantine, whether they should see a doctor or stay home. What is your best guidance?

MESSONNIER: My best guidance is for folks to understand that the situation is rapidly changing. Anybody who has respiratory symptoms, but especially those who are in our highest risk groups - that is those who have traveled to affected areas but also those who are older or have serious underlying illness - those are the folks that should be really prompt in contacting their health care provider.

SHAPIRO: Now, physicians have told us that the challenge is not just the number of testing kits available, but beyond that, local labs don't have the capacity and expertise to run these tests. Is there anything the CDC can do to relieve that bottleneck?

MESSONNIER: So CDC's role in this space is in getting the test early and in getting it out to the state and local public health labs. And we're in the process of ramping that up even more this week. But to really provide tests to patients - and to the front-line health care providers who care for those patients, the test has to be available through the commercial world. And the FDA has responsibility of that. And they tell us that by the end of this week and next week, many more test kits will start shipping out.

SHAPIRO: And there will be capacity to run those tests and actually get the results?

MESSONNIER: That will be run through the commercial sector, and it's the FDA that oversees that. And they tell us that the capacity over the next couple weeks is going to exponentially increase.

SHAPIRO: Also, commercial labs like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics say they're going to start making tests available for the coronavirus. If one of those test results comes back positive, how will the CDC and local health officials learn of that and respond?

MESSONNIER: Yeah, so there's two important things. One is that when a health care provider gets the test result back, they should contact their local and state health departments because their local and state health departments are best poised to give them guidance in how to deal with that patient. From the CDC side, we get a lot of our information from the state and local health departments, but we also work with those commercial companies to help us have surveillance data so we understand what's going on across the United States.

SHAPIRO: Given what you know about the spread of this disease, how many undiagnosed cases of COVID-19 do you think there might be right now in the U.S.?

MESSONNIER: I'm not sure that we can predict how many undiagnosed cases there are. I think we really need to focus on those who are most vulnerable. And my main message is that the data really says that people who are older and those who have underlying severe illnesses are most vulnerable. And I want those people to understand that if they have respiratory symptoms, especially if they're in one of these areas where we know there's local transmission, they need to call their health care provider.

SHAPIRO: If I'm not mistaken, aren't you working with university researchers to model the potential number of undiagnosed cases in the U.S. right now?

MESSONNIER: Sure. There are actually something upwards of 50 groups of mathematical modelers across the United States that use the existing data to try to model a variety of things. And one of the things that they're certainly trying to model is how bad this epidemic will be. But right now we really don't have a lot of information. And so a lot of the things in their model are hypothetical. As we move on and as we watch how disease spreads in the United States, we'll have more information. And that'll help us make better predictions.

SHAPIRO: Finally, Washington state has now urged people to work from home and avoid gatherings of 10 people or more. What is your advice to other states that want to avoid that?

MESSONNIER: In general, in the United States right now, most Americans are still not at high risk for coronavirus. And what they should be doing is getting prepared. Things could change quickly. And they should be in contact with their local health department, looking at the CDC's website, so they can understand if there is any disease in their community. But it's important, again, for most Americans to know that today they're not at significant risk for COVID-19.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thank you.

MESSONNIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.