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Lightfoot accuses CDC of spreading panic about the coronavirus

The city is prepared to implement extreme measures — like quarantines or closing schools — if warranted, but “I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and suggest to the public that there’s a reason for them to be fearful,” the mayor said.

A woman guides a traveler to the exit last month in the International Terminal at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
A woman guides a traveler to the exit last month in the International Terminal at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday she’s “very disappointed” in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for fanning the flames of fear about the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, is warning Americans to start preparing now for “the expectation that this might be bad,” triggering a severe disruption in their daily lives.

Messonnier argued the question was no longer if the coronavirus will start spreading in the United States, but when.

That may require what she called, “social distancing measures” that include smaller classes or closing schools, canceling meetings and conferences and allowing employees to work from home.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar fueled the concern, telling a U.S. Senate hearing on the issue that it was impossible to “hermetically seal off the United States to a virus” and that Americans “need to be realistic about that.”

Evacuees from China arrive at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego on Feb. 5. Miramar worked with the Center for Disease Control and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the quarantine of travelers evacuating from China amid the Coronavirus outbreak. 
Evacuees from China arrive at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego on Feb. 5. Miramar worked with the Center for Disease Control and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the quarantine of travelers evacuating from China amid the Coronavirus outbreak.
AFP/U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Krysten Houk

Wednesday, Lightfoot essentially accused the federal officials of fear-mongering.

With Chinatown restaurants already suffering from a dramatic decline in business tied to coronavirus fears, the last thing Chicago needs is a premature alarm from federal officials, the mayor said.

“I will candidly tell you that I was very disappointed with the comments of the CDC yesterday and members of the Trump administration around coronavirus,” Lightfoot said.

“We feel very well prepared to address this issue. And I don’t want people to take from the comments … at the federal level that, somehow, they should be worried and that we’re not prepared in this city. We absolutely are prepared.”

Lightfoot noted that, so far, there have been only two cases of coronavirus in the Chicago area.

A woman who traveled to the epicenter in Wuhan, China got sick and “obviously passed it to her husband.” Both were hospitalized and quarantined “for the prescribed period,” the mayor said.

“We’ve had no other cases in Chicago. Am I gonna sit here and say with absolute certainty that we won’t have any other cases? No. I will not. But I want to make sure that people understand they should continue to go about their normal lives,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor assured skittish Chicagoans that city, state and county public health agencies are “in constant contact” with the CDC and Homeland Security and have a “well-planned,” coordinated and frequently-tested response in the event the virus reappears.

All impacted agencies and local hospitals are “engaged in table-top exercises on a regular basis,” she said.

“In the event that we need to ramp up, quarantining, we are absolutely prepared to do that. ... We had the experience of Ebola. We’ve had the experience of SARS. In the event we need to take extraordinary measures — whether it’s in schools, whether it’s in businesses and government — we’re prepared to do that,” she said.

“But I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and suggest to the public that there’s a reason for them to be fearful. Obviously, they need to be diligent. This is a very serious and novel virus. There is not a cure yet. But we need people to continue to go about their daily lives. I want to emphasize in particular that Chinatown is safe.”