COVID-19 lessons: Prepare for the next pandemic now

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Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 11:25 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - While a lot is still uncertain in the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one thing experts say we can count on -- another pandemic in the future that the world needs to prepare for.

“I don’t think it’s a question of ‘if’ there’s future pandemics. It’s a question of ‘when,’” said Dr. Robert Lam, emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Memorial.

According to the CDC, in about the past century, Americans have seen at least four pandemics: the H1N1 virus in 1918, the H2N2 virus in 1958, the H3N2 virus in 1968, and the H1N1 virus in 2009. The U.S. has also battled major outbreaks of diphtheria, polio, measles, and whooping cough.

Despite a history of pandemics, many doctors agree that the United States’ response could have been better.

Dr. Jon Andrus is an adjunct professor and director of vaccines and immunization at the University of Colorado. He has an extensive history of working in global health programs, including being the deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization for 5 years.

“You know the countries that had testing available, that did the contact tracing and investigations, that did the quarantine and isolation when appropriate -- those are the countries that saved more lives. We didn’t do that so well, so hopefully we learn from this so we’re better fit for purpose when the next pandemic happens, because it will happen,” Dr. Andrus said.

A pandemic is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an “event in which a disease spreads across several countries and affects a large number of people.”

Travel makes it easier for disease to spread. In November 2019, pre-pandemic, more than 2.5 million passengers flew into the Denver International Airport.

“For a while, it really seemed pretty far away, didn’t it?” Dr. Lam said. “But in the age of international air travel, we are in a time when we can’t expect that things will be isolated to one part of the country. Viruses don’t care what country you live in. They don’t care your socioeconomic status. They do what viruses do. They replicate.”

As Chief of Medical Staff for Penrose-St. Francis, Dr. Michael Roshon said his Emergency Department saw people coming into the hospital in dire straits very often early in the pandemic. He said that’s gotten better over the past year, but he hopes that for the next worldwide tragedy, we can fight disease even faster.

“We’ve seen what science can do, right? We need to fund that science. We need to make sure that scientists are ready, and that they have the technology to be able to respond as quickly as we have done this time -- even quicker,” said Dr. Roshon.

He also called on officials to prepare public health infrastructure, and on every American to improve their health to make it harder for a virus to prey on them.

“If we don’t get ready for the next pandemic,” he said. “Then shame on us.”

A joint World Health Organization and China study on the origins of COVID-19 found that the virus was likely transmitted from bats to humans. Within months, it spread worldwide and caused more than 2.8 million deaths -- proof, according to Dr. Andrus, that the time to prepare is now.

“One could argue that the pathogen that will cause the next (pandemic) is already here. It might be circulating in some bat population and it’s waiting for it’s chance to jump, infect a human, waiting for its chance to then mutate so it can be transmitted,” Dr. Andrus said. “That’s the natural history of those things. You could argue that it’s already here.”

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