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?

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A large percentage of Americans working from home, schoolchildren on an indefinite break - those are just a couple of the rhythms of daily life that two weeks ago seemed unthinkable. Now they seem essential.

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Medstar Washington Hospital Center in Washington D.C. is in full-on preparation mode.

On a recent visit the staff had already marked out the parking lot — painting green rectangles to mark the places where tents are starting to be set up to screen arriving patients for COVID-19.

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Even as the number of new coronavirus infections continues to spiral upward in countries around the world, a top global health expert says it's not too late to contain the virus.

"As long as you have these discrete outbreaks ... there is the opportunity to control them — to get on top of these and contain them and prevent a lot of disease and ultimately death," says Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization. "That's the big message we saw in China — and one of the big surprises."

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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.

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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.

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