America Warned to Brace for '9/11'-Like Attack from Covid-19, as Toll Rises

Nation's Surgeon General warns of 'hardest moment' as known infections of novel coronavirus passes 325,000.

The nation's Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, on Sunday warned a confused and worried nation that "next week is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment. It's going to be our 9/11 moment."

Surgeon General Adams, who gave his dire words on NBC News' "Meet the Press," was talking about the expected death toll and rising number of severe cases of Covid-19, a sometimes deadly disease caused by the recently discovered coronavirus.  

That very virus had begun terrorizing and killing patients in China in January before it rapidly spread globally, first in Asia and then throughout Europe, but was long dismissed as a threat by officials in the U.S., as even President Donald Trump just over a month ago called it nothing more than "the sniffles" and earlier claimed that it would be gone by April.

Several experts, however, could already see back in February -- when only a small number of cases was uncovered here -- what was about to unfold in the U.S. and elsewhere: A tragedy like the earlier one in China. 

Now U.S. citizens are asked nationwide by governors and city mayors to stay at home unless necessary, and many who do venture out go about their shopping or walking looking like surgeons wearing face masks and gloves -- hoping they won't add to the count of over 331,000 Americans who've tested positive for Covid-19, or the more than 9,450 who had died from the disease

"It’s going to be the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives, and we really need to understand that if we want to flatten that curve and get through to the other side, everyone needs to do their part," said Surgeon General Adams on "Meet the Press." "Ninety percent of Americans are doing their part, even in the states where, where they haven't had a shelter in place. But if you can't give us 30 days, governors, give us, give us a week, give us what you can, so that we don't overwhelm our health care systems over this next week."

After months of failing to test the public for the disease, the U.S. finally made progress over the past several weeks, uncovering a vast spread of cases that now puts the nation far past any other countries in the world in terms of total known infection count. And that number is likely still an under-count, as some major hospitals still lack the capacity to test those with apparently mild symptoms, focusing instead on patients most in need.

Despite how widespread the outbreak here has become, it's still possible to make progress in containing the outbreak, said one expert, Prof. Richard H. Ebright, the laboratory director at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology and a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University, in an email to TheStreet.

Ebright -- a highly accomplished scientist who was elected as an Infectious Diseases Society of America fellow in 2011 -- has been harshly critical of the administration's response to the pandemic, but still sees hope for handling the outbreak.

"China succeeded in suppressing, and essentially eradicating, an immense outbreak. And China succeeded in doing so, despite starting at point in time when there was no road map showing how to do so and when there were no diagnostic tests. The U.S. now faces an even more immense outbreak. But, based on China's experience, and based on the experiences of other Asia nations that succeeded in suppressing outbreaks -- Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea -- we know that the outbreak can be suppressed, we have a road map of how to suppress the outbreak, and we have diagnostic tests. If we fail despite these advantages, then we have no one to blame but ourselves and our leaders," Ebright told TheStreet.

And Ebright noted that if the disease is not slowed, then U.S. health care officials would have to make tough decisions on how to use care with limited staff and resources as hospitals become overwhelmed with patients, preventing some from getting intensive care or access to life-saving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation -- or ECMO -- a type of life support treatment for those with Covid-19-caused pneumonia, which has proven a lifesaver in Japan and elsewhere. 

"ICU capacity, ventilator capacity, and ECMO capacity will be overwhelmed in coming weeks in the U.S. There will be no alternative but to triage access by age and health. This happened in Wuhan and this is happening now in Italy and Spain, This surely will happen in the U.S.," said Ebright. "The only question is what the thresholds for denial of care will be -- Over 70? Over 60? Over 50? Over 40? Over 30? Cancer history? Cardiac history? Diabetes? Asthma? High blood pressure?"

This story has been updated.