Gottlieb warns "Wuhan-style" coronavirus outbreaks could overwhelm U.S. cities

Gottlieb warns against "Wuhan-style" coronavirus outbreaks in U.S.

Washington — Former Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned Sunday of multiple "Wuhan-style" coronavirus outbreaks in the United States and said outbreaks of that scale could overwhelm the health care system.

Gottlieb was pressed on "Face the Nation" about whether hospitals have enough supplies to address the growing number of reported cases of the coronavirus, which has spread to 49 states and the District of Columbia.

"Not if we have a Wuhan-style outbreak in a major city or multiple cities, which is my concern, that we could have outbreaks of that proportion in multiple U.S. cities," he said on "Face the Nation." 

Gottlieb noted that Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus originated, is roughly the size of New York City and said that at the height of the epidemic there, 20,000 people were hospitalized. Roughly 10,000 were in serious or critical condition, he said, and 2,000 were intubated. 

For comparison, New York state has 50,000 hospital beds, the vast majority of which are in New York City.

"If we have a Wuhan-style outbreak in New York City, that's going to overwhelm the system," he said.  "They need to be building surge capacity right now in anticipation of that possibility. There's ways to avert it, but that's the risk that we face right now."

Gottlieb, who led the Food and Drug Administration under President Trump before leaving his post last year, estimated that in the U.S., there "certainly" will be tens of thousands of cases of the coronavirus and warned that outbreaks may not be confined to just one city, as was largely the case in China.

"I think the risk that we have in the U.S. is we're a much more mobile population," he said. "China was able to confine their epidemic largely to Wuhan. The risk here is that we have multiple cities that are seeded right now, and so we'll have multiple Wuhans. That's the bad case scenario."

Gottlieb added that the coronavirus is a "once-in-generation pathogen."

"We have never seen anything like this before in modern times," he said.

While the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, it has since spread to more than 100 countries, leading places like Italy and Spain to implement strict lockdown procedures for their citizens. In the U.S., there are nearly 3,000 reported cases.

To slow the spread of the coronavirus, school districts have closed schools for the coming weeks and colleges and universities have moved to online courses. Public health officials are also urging Americans to limit their personal interactions, and many private companies have instructed employees to telework. Major sporting events and concerts have also been canceled or postponed.

Gottlieb said the procedures implemented now are "changing the course" of the epidemic but noted additional steps need to be taken.

"I think what we can do is slow economic activity to a point where people have no place to go," he said. "If you close the theaters and you close the restaurants, you close large gatherings, you tell people not to have dinner parties, you tell businesses to have nonessential workers telework, people stay home. There's no place to go. I think that's the solution in the United States, not to put a city on lockdown. I don't think we're going to get there. We might. I hope not."

To prepare for additional cases of the coronavirus, Gottlieb urged hospitals to begin discharging patients when they can and defer elective procedures to free up hospital space and equipment.

Gottlieb acknowledged there are going to be "hard economic decisions" for hospitals, but said there is time to prepare.

"Every day courts," he said. "Every day matters."

At the federal level, President Trump declared a national emergency last week and implemented travel restrictions for foreign nationals entering the U.S. from most of Europe. Those restrictions were expanded to include Ireland and the United Kingdom, Vice President Mike Pence announced Saturday.

Gottlieb said he has been in frequent contact with White House officials about the coronavirus, dating back to January, and commended the White House for its attention to the issue.

"They've been on top of this," he said.