Nurith Aizenman | KUNC

Nurith Aizenman

As coronavirus infections rise across the United States, public health experts widely agree it's time for a drastic step: Every state in the nation should now issue the kind of stay-at-home orders first adopted by the hardest-hit places. And while most states will probably not need to keep the rules in place for months upon months, many health specialists say the lockdowns will need to be kept up for several weeks.

Yet among these same experts, there is debate when it comes to the natural next question: What strategy can be deployed after the lockdowns are lifted?

When it comes to the spiraling global coronavirus outbreak, scientists are still trying to pin down the answer to a basic question: How deadly is this virus?

Estimates have varied widely. For instance, at a Feb. 24 news conference in Beijing, a top Chinese health official, Liang Wannian, said the fatality rate for COVID-19 was quite high.

"Between 3 to 4% of patients have died," said Liang.

Three years ago, NPR accompanied disease ecologist Kevin Olival on a field trip to Malaysian Borneo.

The number of people who are infected with the new coronavirus that is spreading from China is dwarfed by those affected by a far more common respiratory illness: seasonal flu.

Every year there are as many as 5 million severe flu cases worldwide and hundreds of thousands of deaths. By contrast, so far there have been about 20,000 (and rising) cases of coronavirus, most of them mild.

Just a few months ago, Tom Inglesby helped gather top officials from governments, businesses and health organizations around the world to play a kind of war game.

"It was a scenario looking at global consequences of a major new epidemic," says Inglesby, who directs the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University.

In the United States, drugmakers have flooded the market with powerful, sophisticated opioids. And that's fueled an epidemic of addiction. But across Africa many patients can't afford even mild painkillers — let alone medications to help people in extreme pain.

Uganda has come up with a solution that goes back to basics with one of the world's original painkillers: morphine.

Almost as soon as the e-cigarette maker Juul launched in the Philippines this past June, Maria Encarnita Limpin started noticing the product in shops all over the capital Manila.

"It's like they mushroomed," she says.

Limpin is a doctor specializing in lung disease and also directs a nonprofit that has helped push though rules preventing the marketing and sale of cigarettes to minors in the Philippines. So she was particularly horrified to see how visible Juul's vaporizers are in areas where children are likely to see them.

David Gressly is not a medical expert. But he has just taken on what has to be one of the toughest jobs in global health.

On May 23, the United Nations' secretary-general named Gressly to a new position overseeing the organization's effort to stop the 10-month-long Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of the Congo. (His official title is U.N. emergency Ebola coordinator.)

The aid group Doctors without Borders is suspending its work in the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The move comes after two separate attacks on its treatment centers there. The organization says, at best, it will be weeks before it returns.

"When I send my teams I need to be sure that they are going to come back alive," says Emmanuel Massart, the on-the-ground emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in the region. "The attacks were really, really violent."

The first took place last Sunday night.

Michel Yao says his job is a lot like being a detective.

Yao is leading the World Health Organization's on-the-ground response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And as each new person falls sick, his team must race to figure out how the person got infected.

So, Yao says, "we ask the person a series of questions."

First up: Were you in contact with any sick person who had some symptoms like bleeding or like fever? Perhaps a relative you were taking care of?

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