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Restrictive Measures To Stop COVID-19 Are Not All Mandatory


Just hours ago, West Virginia confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, which means the outbreak has now reached all 50 states. And as the number of cases increases, city and state officials are taking unprecedented restrictive measures. And then that leads to this question - right? - what is voluntary, and what is mandatory? And how is any of it going to be enforced?

NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre has been looking into this and joins us this morning. Hi, Greg.


MARTIN: So there are all kinds of words that are now a part of our lexicon - self-isolation, quarantine, lockdown, shelter in place. Do these all have different meanings? How are we supposed to understand these?

MYRE: Well, the way they have been used so far by public figures and the media, they're almost interchangeable. I don't think people are making a big distinction. That may be changing a little bit as political leaders start to impose very specific restrictions now.

The terms we've been hearing of self-isolation and self-quarantine refer more to something an individual should do if they were exposed to the virus. But now the words we're hearing, phrases like shelter in place and lockdown - these are really citywide, statewide measures that are being imposed. The federal and the state governments can do this, and they can impose fines and prosecute. But so far, we really haven't seen that. The message has been, we want to talk to people, educate them. And it's still sort of been the voluntary stage, so to speak.

MARTIN: OK. So this all depends on people making their own safe choices. Are they?

MYRE: Generally, yes. The public seems pretty supportive so far. We find the occasional outlier. There's been one reported case in Kentucky of a 53-year-old man - went to the hospital, tested positive for the virus and then decided to leave and go home. Sheriff's deputies surrounded his house, and they say he has been cooperating and is self-quarantining now.

But these are still the early days. We're just getting started. Will the compliance really remain strong as this goes on for weeks, perhaps months?

And young people in particular, who are used to going out, may be the category that we should watch most closely. Dr. Deborah Birx - she's the White House coordinator on the response - she addressed this very issue yesterday.


DEBORAH BIRX: We're asking the younger generations to stop going out in public places, to bars and restaurants and spreading asymptomatic virus onto countertops and knobs and grocery stores and grocery carts.

MYRE: So we should certainly keep an eye on young people. We should also keep close watch on San Francisco and the Bay Area. This is the first big test of shelter in place. Seven million people are told to stay in their house for three weeks. It gets tricky. You run into some contradictions. You got to leave grocery stores and pharmacies and hospitals open, but then people - not everyone can walk, so you have to keep subways and buses and taxis and Ubers running - you know, banks, ATMs, gas stations. So the list very quickly gets very long.

MARTIN: Right, of the people that need to be out and about. So the president and others keep raising the idea of employing the military in some way. Can you explain what that would look like?

MYRE: Right. So Defense Secretary Mark Esper addressed this yesterday. He says that there are things they can contribute right away - 14 testing labs, 5 million surgical masks, 2,000 ventilators. There's even talk of field hospitals, possibly in a place like New York. But military medicine is geared toward treating young troops with traumatic injuries, not the elderly with infectious diseases. So Esper offered this suggestion for a field hospital.


MARK ESPER: So ideally, what you would do is locate it somewhere, maybe next to a hospital, where, as trauma patients come in, instead of going into the hospital, they would go into the field hospital, where we could treat the broken legs, the lacerations, the falling down, hit your head type of stuff.

MYRE: And he went on to say that would leave a bed open in the civilian hospital for a coronavirus patient. And there's also been some talk about Navy hospital ships. There's one in San Diego, the other in Norfolk. These could treat up to a thousand patients, but, again, they're not geared toward treating people with infectious diseases. Space is tight on the ships. So again, the same sort of idea would be people without the coronavirus but who need treatment could go into a hospital ship, freeing up more hospital space. So that's what we're looking at.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Greg Myre, thank you. We appreciate it.

MYRE: My pleasure, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.