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Health officials are using lessons from past outbreaks to fight coronavirus

What to expect from coronavirus outbreak
What can past infectious disease outbreaks teach us about the coronavirus? 05:31

The coronavirus outbreak is still spreading around the world, with Iran confirming its first two cases overnight. 

CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook has been at the frontlines covering other infectious disease emergencies around the world. Lessons from other outbreaks can protect Americans from this coronavirus.

When a deadly virus arrives in the U.S., health officials follow a road map and try to anticipate the detours that can put the public at risk — but they don't always succeed.

When Ebola came to America, two nurses caring for a patient in Dallas contracted the disease. Officials believe gaps in protective equipment — and unclear guidelines for properly using it — were to blame.

"We realized here in the United States that we needed to enhance preparedness at hospitals," said Dr. Angela Hewlett, who helped treat three Ebola patients at Nebraska Medicine.  

One of the lessons from the Ebola outbreak was that every hospital was not prepared. Hewlett said that's changed, especially since the inception of the National Ebola Training and Education Center. 

The center holds regular drills, using protocols strengthened after Ebola. Hospital workers from across the country practice putting on — and taking off — protective gear exactly the right way.

Ebola also highlighted the need for a dedicated facility for patients showing symptoms of infections that are especially contagious and lethal, according to LaPook. This brand-new national quarantine center in Omaha, Nebraska, is now monitoring 12 Americans evacuated from China.

When an outbreak hits, Hewlett said they start preparing their quarantine center and bio-containment unit.
"That could be everything from ensuring that we have the right care providers to … making sure that we have enough protective equipment," she said.
With shortages of medical supplies in China — and concerns about the worldwide supply of drugs — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already loaded up on vital items such as medicines, IVs, vaccines, and ventilators. Our "60 Minutes" team visited one of the strategic national stockpiles at a secret location during the Zika outbreak

In 2016, health officials struggled to get the word out to women that a Zika infection during pregnancy could cause babies to be born with severe brain damage. This time, tech companies and the World Health Organization are collaborating to put reputable health resources as the top search results for coronavirus in an effort to filter out misinformation. 

"We're seeing a lot of coronavirus mythology," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, who was director of the CDC during the SARS outbreak, when China's lack of transparency may have cost lives. She said the SARS outbreak is shaping how officials are sharing information about the coronavirus.

"One of the most important lessons in any public health situation is communicate," she said. "People crave information. And if the CDC isn't providing it, someone else will."

Gerberding — who now works as the chief patient officer at pharmaceutical giant Merck — said that, while public health experts look to high-tech solutions in the lab to fight the coronavirus, they've also learned that protecting the public starts with a low-tech approach.

"We have disease detectives who are going out and interviewing patients, interviewing their contacts, really trying to tease out, clue by clue ... how did they get exposed, and how fast is it spreading?" she said.

The SARS, Zika, H1N1, and Ebola outbreaks have taught doctors and health officials many lessons.

"We have had more practice than we hoped for," Gerberding said. "But each time we have an outbreak, it does strengthen at least some part of the system, and over time it's getting better and better."

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