An epidemic that begins in another country can only spread to America if we admit people at our ports of entry traveling from the source country. Yet whenever a public health crisis breaks out, such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014 and in Congo last year, a temporary travel ban seems to be the last thing on the minds of the federal agencies responsible for protecting public health, rather than the first option. Immigration and travel are regarded as too sacred to restrict. Will the coronavirus outbreak in China be different?
The death toll from the 2019-nCoV epidemic, simply referred to as the coronavirus, has now exceeded 80, as more than 2,700 cases have been confirmed in China. The potentially deadly respiratory illness originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread throughout Hubei province and even to Hong Kong. Travel likely should have been shut down two weeks ago, but the virus has now spread to the United States. There are now five confirmed cases – two in California, one in Seattle, one in Chicago, and one in Maricopa County, Arizona. All five patients had traveled recently to Wuhan.
Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, announced over the weekend, "We expect to find more cases of novel coronavirus in the United States."
It’s particularly alarming given that the symptoms and source of this virus are like those of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which also originated in south China in 2002. During the SARS epidemic, which lasted into 2003, 774 died out of a total of 8,098 known cases worldwide.
One would expect that the first course of action of the government would be to prevent Chinese from traveling here or Americans from traveling to China and returning, or at least to impose a travel ban on parts of China. That is the first step to ensuring that the disease doesn’t spread like wildfire in our country. Yet, as with epidemics of the past, there doesn’t seem to be any imminent warning of suspending travel.
This is particularly jarring in the case of China. On average, we issue 1.4 million tourist visas to Chinese nationals every year, more than to nationals of any other country in the world. That’s a pace of nearly 4,000 per day traveling here, not including the Americans who travel to China and return. That is one massive pipeline through which an epidemic can spread.