Virus expert discusses coronavirus threat

Joseph B. McCormick M.D., an epidemiologist, founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville and one of the world’s top experts on terrifying diseases such as the Ebola virus and Lassa fever, says COVID-19 is about as bad as anything he’s ever encountered.

McCormick, who started the school of public health 20 years ago and stepped down as regional dean in late 2018, served as chief of the Special Pathogens Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1981 to 1990 and, with his wife, fellow epidemiologist Susan Fisher-Hoch, authored “Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC,” originally published in 1996.

“It’s right up there with the worst that we’ve seen in the sense that even modern medicine is struggling to keep up with it,” he said. “That’s saying something.”

McCormick was involved with investigating the first-recorded outbreak of Ebola, in West Africa in 1976, and was interviewed on CNN several times after Ebola broke out again in Africa in 2014. In his first interview with Anderson Cooper, McCormick recalls, he predicted correctly that there would be no Ebola outbreak in the United States because the virus was relatively easy to contain. It couldn’t be transmitted until an infected person was showing symptoms, and even then required very close contact to spread. Moreover, the United States had the means to check people from the outbreak area and isolate them if necessary, McCormick said.

In all those aspects COVID-19 is the opposite of Ebola, he said.

“I think the director of (the World Health Organization) said it well,” McCormick said. “It’s like fighting a fire blindfolded, because we don’t have any information and we know this virus is spreading and can be spread by asymptomatic people. That just makes it incredibly difficult to know what’s going on. The lack of planning for testing has just compounded this enormously. That has really made life even more complicated.”

Without large-scale testing in Cameron County it’s impossible to know who’s infected and should be quarantined, he said, noting that to date in the county only people with symptoms are being tested, even though there’s a good chance that half of the people infected are asymptomatic yet still able to transmit the disease.

“It means an awful lot of people are spreading the virus around and don’t even know it,” McCormick said. “That’s the difference here. … The only thing we can do is to say to everyone practice social distancing. You’ve got to not transmit the virus.”

McCormick called COVID-19 the “most complicated and threatening” epidemic he’s been involved with in part because of the danger to emergency medical personnel, law enforcement officers, doctors, nurses and other health care workers, and others on the front line. For Cameron County and elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley, COVID-19 is particularly dangerous because such a large percentage of the population has two major risk factors – diabetes and/or obesity – that increase the chances of dying from the virus, he said, stressing that he’s not just talking about older people.

“There are plenty of younger people who have underlying conditions,” McCormick said. “We’ve had a longstanding research program that has sampled about 5,000 in (Cameron County) over the last decade and a half to look at chronic disease. Seventeen percent of young men from 18 to 35 already have diabetes. That’s published. I think this is really important to emphasize, that people below the age of 50, there is plenty of underlying condition out there.”

Meanwhile, 28 percent of all adults in the county have diabetes and 50 percent are obese – also a risk factor, he said. Young people who vape may also be at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 because of inflammation of the respiratory system caused by vaping, though there isn’t data yet to know for sure, McCormick said.

He praised the efforts of the county and the city of Brownsville in imposing shelter-in-place, social-distancing and restricted travel orders, and hoped the drive-through testing that began in Brownsville last week can be expanded.

“We’re working closely with the city,” McCormick said. “We’re helping them set up a database. We had meetings with them last week. There were a number of things that they put in place that just are really important.”

Elsewhere in the state, Houston’s decision to cancel two of its biggest moneymakers, the annual livestock show the CERAWeek oil industry conference, was an important decision to stem the spread of the virus, he said. Austin’s big event SXSW was canceled for the same reason. New Orleans, meanwhile, with rampant COVID-19 infection, may be paying the price for hosting Mardi Gras, McCormick said, though he hastened to add that despite what some people think the virus isn’t just an urban problem.

“We already have infections in Rio Hondo, in Los Fresnos, in Laguna Vista,” McCormick said. “We’re talking about towns of 2,000 to 5,000 people. Anybody who thinks it’s not out there in the rural areas just isn’t paying attention.”

Noting that the spread in Texas is steady but slow compared to some other states, he said the state still has the opportunity to “flatten the curve.” It comes down to everyone who is sick getting well, letting the virus run its course, and not infecting anybody else in the meantime, McCormick said.

“That’s really, to put it simply, what we’re waiting for,” he said. “Everybody who’s infected needs to clear the virus and not be a spreader. Once that happens we’ll be in a much better position, and by that time we should have much more widespread testing, so that we can continue testing to be sure we’re not missing something.”

McCormick said it’s too early to know how long it will be before it’s safe to relax restrictions, though he dismissed any suggestion that the country could reopen by Easter as “cloud cuckoo.”

“As long as the city and county continue to do what they’re doing, until we really don’t see any new infections, and then we go at least two weeks beyond that, then I think we’re going to be in a reasonable position … to start to relax a little bit some of the restrictions,” he said. “If we don’t do that it’s just going to prolong the agony. It’s a bitter pill to take in the beginning economically, but we just need to swallow it.”