The WHO said social distancing is 'buying time,' but it must be paired with widespread testing to stop coronavirus

Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, attends a news conference on the coronavirus (COVID-2019) in Geneva, Switzerland February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse


WHO news conference on the novel coronavirus (COVID-2019)

  • The WHO said countries need more testing for coronavirus to contain it. The US has struggled to deliver on this and finds itself in a growing crisis.
  • World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday, March 25, said social distancing is "buying time" but added that "on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics."
  • Tedros said countries need to "ramp up the production, capacity and availability of testing."
  • The US has tested over 300,000 people for coronavirus, but is still behind much of the world in terms of the rate of testing.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday, March 25, said actions such as social distancing are "buying time," but cautioned they need to be paired with widespread testing for countries to get the coronavirus pandemic under control.

"To slow the spread of COVID-19, many countries have introduced unprecedented measures, at significant social and economic cost - closing schools and businesses, canceling sporting events and asking people to stay home and stay safe," Tedros said. "We understand that these countries are now trying to assess when and how they will be able to ease these measures. The answer depends on what countries do while these population-wide measures are in place."

"Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems. But on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics," he added.

Tedros said the point of these measures is to "enable the more precise and targeted measures that are needed to stop transmission and save lives," which, among other things, must include a robust system of testing.

He said there were six key actions the WHO recommends:

  1. "First, expand, train and deploy your health care and public health workforce."
  2. "Second, implement a system to find every suspected case at community level."
  3. "Third, ramp up the production, capacity and availability of testing."
  4. "Fourth, identify, adapt and equip facilities you will use to treat and isolate patients."
  5. "Fifth, develop a clear plan and process to quarantine contacts."
  6. "And sixth, refocus the whole of government on suppressing and controlling COVID-19."

His remarks came a day after President Donald Trump signaled he wanted to open the US economy back up and ease coronavirus restrictions by Easter, which is April 12, going against the advice of top public health experts.

Trump is growing impatient with the stringent restrictions that have been put in place across the US, which have essentially placed major cities on lockdown and seen nonessential businesses shuttered. But public health experts have warned that attempting to rush the US back to normal could exacerbate the crisis.

The US is also behind much of the world when it comes to the rate of testing for coronavirus, which is linked to faulty test kits sent out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February.

Countries like South Korea have set a model for the world in testing for coronavirus. Trump this week has boasted that the US surpassed South Korea in testing, but that's only by a slim number in terms of raw tests and not per capita.

Both countries have tested over 300,000 people. South Korea has tested about one-in-170 people, while the US has tested about one-in-1,090, according to NPR.

With a population of about 51 million, South Korea is also a much smaller country than the US, which has 327 million people.

In short, the US is still behind when it comes to testing, which means it doesn't have a complete picture of the scale of the outbreak within its borders.

"The feckless federal response created such delays in testing that most cases here are not being confirmed, even now. We don't know even approximately how many people are infected, but it's certainly more than the current count," Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology and the director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a March 23 op-ed for Washington Post.

"Intense social distancing must be the centerpiece of our strategy for now. There are reasonable concerns about how long this can continue, but these are no excuse for avoiding urgent action now to prevent an already bad situation becoming worse," Lipsitch added.

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 60,000 coronavirus cases have been reported across all 50 states and Washington, DC, along with over 820 deaths.

Get the latest coronavirus analysis and research from Business Insider Intelligence on how COVID-19 is impacting businesses.

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