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Press Briefing with Dr. Sarah Bennett, CDC, on COVID-19
March 27, 2020


Telephonic Press Briefing with Dr. Sarah Bennett, Head of the International Task Force for COVID-19, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S Department of State
Special Briefing via Telephone
Sarah Bennett, Commander, United States Public Health Service, and Head of the International Task Force for COVID-19, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
March 26, 2020

Moderator: Good morning, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Media Engagement. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the globe.

Today, we are pleased to be joined by Dr. Sarah Bennett, Commander of the United States Public Health Service and Head of the International Task Force for COVID-19 at the U.S. Center – at the U.S. CDC. Unfortunately, Dr. Messonnier will no longer be able to join us today.

Dr. Bennett this morning will discuss CDC’s coordination with international partners and cooperation with ministries of health around the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d ask that you please keep your questions limited to the CDC’s international response to COVID-19. Dr. Bennett will not be able to speak to the U.S. domestic response, and we are working on rescheduling a call with Dr. Messonnier to speak with journalists at a later date.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Dr. Bennett and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.

Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and with that I will turn it over to Dr. Bennett. Please go ahead, ma’am.

Dr. Bennett: Thank you. Good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining the call today. For most of us, you, me, and our respective communities, the COVID-19 pandemic is a historic event the likes of which have not been seen since the influenza pandemic of 1918.

We understand how frightening or stressful this can be for many people, particularly if you have loved ones who are elderly or who have underlying complications if they get COVID-19. The U.S. Government works closely with international partners and host governments around the world to support countries to prepare for, prevent, identify, and respond to health threats.

For this pandemic in particular, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, is working closely with the World Health Organization, WHO, our ministries of health colleagues, and other partners to respond to requests to assist countries to prepare for and respond to COVID-19.

We have staff stationed in more than 60 countries around the globe working with our in-country partners to address their public health priorities and save lives.

CDC is supporting countries to carry out WHO recommendations on the identification of people who might have COVID-19, diagnosis and care of these patients, and tracking the pandemic. Many countries that have received CDC assistance in the past are using these lessons and skills to prepare for, detect, and respond to COVID-19.

Examples include support for coordination of emergency responses, training for public health workers, and support for laboratories. Our staff in the United States and overseas are doing everything they can to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’ll stop there, and I’d be happy to take your questions.

Moderator: Thank you so much. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and media affiliation and limit yourself to one question.

As a reminder, I would ask you please to limit your questions to the CDC’s international response as Dr. Bennett cannot speak to the U.S. domestic response.

Our first question will go to Nick Turse. Please go ahead.

Question: This is Nick Turse from The Intercept. President Trump has said he’s wanted to open up large sections of the country by Easter. I wondered if this is realistic and also what message it sends to the rest of the world to have an opening up of the country this fast.

Dr. Bennett: So CDC is currently supporting many country partners to implement or to use the measures that are considered best practices for controlling the pandemic in their country. At this time, I can’t really comment on the domestic response.

Moderator: Thank you. Once again, I’d ask you to limit your questions to the international response that the CDC is working on, not the domestic response.

Our next question will go to Vietanh Phan with VnExpress in Hanoi. Please go ahead.

Question: Hi. I’d like to ask you to share the plan of the U.S. to import medical equipment from Vietnam. Thank you.

Dr. Bennett: Hi. So again, this is Sarah Bennett. At this time, I’m not involved in plans for the U.S. domestic response to import ventilators from Vietnam, so we would request that you direct your question to the Department of State.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Thomas Nehls. Operator, please open the line.

Operator: What is the line, please?

Moderator: Thomas Nehls.

Question: Ma’am?

Moderator: Hi, yes, we hear you.

Question: Do international sanctions prevent humanitarian help for the victims in Iran, help by U.S., by European countries, by Germany especially?

Dr. Bennett: Hi. The CDC is currently not in a position to address sanctions and what they may prevent in terms of humanitarian help to countries. That issue is best addressed by the U.S. Department of State.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to John Power. John Power, I think your line is open. Can you please go ahead?

Question: Yeah. Some figures in the U.S. including the Secretary of State have criticized what they see as the lack of information and cooperation coming from China. And from the point of view of the CDC, is there any cooperation or information that the CDC would like to see shared or any room for improvement in that area so both sides can work together on this problem?

Dr. Bennett: So CDC and the Government of China have been collaborating for the past 30 years to address public health priorities affecting the United States, China, and the world. CDC does work in close partnership with China, CDC’s National Influenza Epidemiology, Virology, and Pandemic Preparedness Centers, China’s provincial and local CDCs, hospitals, and academic institutions. In addition, CDC supports Chinese partners in monitoring seasonal and novel influenza viruses as well as enhancing efforts to detect and respond to seasonal avian and other novel influenza viruses with pandemic potential.

CDC staff also joined the WHO mission to China to support efforts to better understand the severity and spread of COVID-19. CDC is constantly preparing for outbreaks no matter where they start or what causes them, and we look forward to learning from the best practices and lessons learned from many countries that are combating COVID-19.

Moderator: Thank you, ma’am. I’ll take a question that we received in advance from Sam Mednick. The question is, “What does the CDC recommend for fragile states where people aren’t able to self-isolate and the state isn’t able to create isolation hotels or areas for people?”

Dr. Bennett: CDC remains committed to helping ministries of health and partners like WHO adapt and use best practices to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Practicing preventive measures is the best way to avoid getting the virus. That is why we continue to emphasize frequent handwashing, and anyone who thinks they are sick should wear a mask. In the absence of a mask, they should cover their nose and mouth with a bandana or similar item.

CDC has a – and WHO both have a number of guidance documents on their website that can be used by governments to adapt best practices and control measures for their country, and CDC is committed to helping countries do that.

Moderator: Great. Thank you. Our next question will go to James McCarten.

Question: Oh, hi. I’m calling from the Canadian Press and I’m wondering if there’s anything you can tell me about what the CDC has advised Canada in terms of protecting itself against any sort of importation of cases given its proximity to the United States.

Dr. Bennett: Canada remains a strong partner given the proximity to the United States. In general, we recommend that all countries implement the best practices and the lessons learned from countries that have gone before us in terms of combating the pandemic of COVID-19 and the spread of the virus.

With regard to particular measures to control importation from the United States into Canada, I have not been part of those conversations so I can’t comment on those at this time.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Michel Ghandour with Al Hurra. Michel, your line is open.

Operator: Please give me the line number.

Moderator: 44.

Question: Hello?

Moderator: Hi, Michel. We can hear you. Please go ahead.

Question: Yeah. I have two questions. First, what kind of aid is the U.S. providing to the countries? Are you able to provide any medical supplies? Do you have enough? And second, regarding the medication, have you started to receive any results about the – or after you started using the chloroquine and other medications in the U.S.? Are they positive? Are they helpful?

Dr. Bennett: So for that second question, I’ll address that one first. I think that question is best addressed to Dr. Messonnier when we’re able to reschedule her media briefing.

Regarding the first question, CDC has country offices in more than 60 countries around the globe, and we will continue to work with our in-country partners to address their public health priorities to save lives during the COVID pandemic. At this time, we’re working with our U.S. Government agency partners, WHO, and ministries of health to sort out how best to address each country’s particular needs, and we will continue to be committed to providing whatever support we are able to provide.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Sangmin Lee.

Question: [Inaudible] the North Korea COVID case. North Korea claimed that they have no COVID-19 case, but Robert Abrams, Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, mentioned that he is confident that there are COVID-19 cases in North Korea. So do you have any information that – about North Korea and COVID-19 case?

And the second question is President Trump mentioned that he’s willing to help North Korea fight COVID-19. So what kind of help you can provide North Korea as from the CDC point?

Dr. Bennett: We continue to look to the World Health Organization for the official case counts reported by member states to the World Health Organization. So I can’t really – I don’t really know whether North Korea is reporting something different in their media than what is reported to the World Health Organization. I would recommend contacting North Korea to find out about their current COVID-19 situation.

With regards to whether we would provide CDC assistance to North Korea, CDC remains committed to helping countries with our partners, like WHO and other international partners, to help countries combat the COVID-19 pandemic. And if countries request assistance, we will consider those requests.

Moderator: Thank you. And again, I would ask you limit yourself to one question related to the CDC’s international response.

Our next question will go to Jacqueline Charles.

Question: Thanks. Can you talk about what the CDC is doing in terms of Haiti, and the assistance that it is providing? And, to your knowledge, does that country have enough test kits or – to test the population?

Dr. Bennett: Sorry. So um– I don’t have the numbers in front of me for the current Haiti situation for COVID-19. However, I think that if countries are having difficulties with supply of test kits, there are partners that can assist countries with procuring additional test kits.

We do recommend at this time, since CDC is not sending kits internationally, that they contact the World Health Organization or their regional WHO office to request assistance with procuring additional test kits.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Tim Culpan with Bloomberg.

Question: Thank you for your time. I’d like to ask specifically about Taiwan. Given its unique political situation, it is not a member of the WHO, but the U.S. CDC has historically had very good relationships with Taiwan and Taiwan’s CDC. Could you outline for me briefly, with relation to COVID-19, what specific communications you’ve had with Taiwan authorities in terms of information sharing on the logistical level of cases, or even on the medical level? Thank you.

Dr. Bennett: Thank you for the question. We continue to look to other countries who have had longer experience with COVID-19 to share information about at-risk populations, persons who are at increasing risk for either infection or for death, for experience that they have with community measures, control measures, and also with clinical care.

I can’t say specifically what information has come from our conversations with Taiwan, but it is important, I think, that all countries, as they have additional information that would benefit other countries, we share that information as soon as possible so that other countries can consider that information within their own country context.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Alejandra Arredondo.

Question: The question is regarding to the response of CDC in Latin America. How exactly is the CDC helping Latin American governments combat COVID-19? Thank you very much.

Dr. Bennett: So CDC is committed to helping countries that request assistance with COVID-19 pandemic activities. Specifically in the Latin American region, we have a large regional office in Guatemala that has been providing technical assistance to the region on a number of activities, including contact tracing, epidemiological investigation, and strengthening of their laboratories.

As we move forward with the outbreak in the Pan American Health Organizational region, we stay committed to helping our neighbor countries with best practices and implementing WHO guidelines.

Moderator: Great, thank you. Our next question will be Bingru Wang.

Question: Does the international assistance you mentioned at the beginning include assistance to China?

And also, CDC, as you just mentioned, has a long-time partnership with China. CDC even has an office in China. So was CDC aware of the COVID-19 outbreak in China from the very early stage, which gives the United States enough time to prepare and fight against the virus? Thank you.

Dr. Bennett: Yeah, CDC and the Government of China have been in close collaboration for the past 30 years to address a number of public health priorities that affect the United States, China, and the world. We do have a country office in China that is represented by very dedicated CDC staff that are committed to helping China and also learning from the China experience to inform the U.S. response. It also will help us inform the activities that we help other countries implement within their own country context, and to help us adapt WHO guidelines to those country contexts.

The U.S. did participate in the WHO mission to China, and the findings that were communicated in that report are available publicly on the WHO website.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Monalisa Freiha.

Question: About Lebanon, as you know, the country is in a severe financial crisis. Is there any chance of sending medical – the U.S. sending medical equipment to Lebanon to fight this coronavirus?

Dr. Bennett: Thank you for that question. At this time I think the CDC is reaching out to a number of our country ministry partners to see what is best needed in each and every country, and we will work with our World Health Organization partners and other regional partners to help countries access the needed supplies and equipment that they may need.

Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Eanna Kelly. Eanna Kelly, I think your line is open.

Question: Sorry, yes. Can you hear me now? I was on mute, sorry.

Moderator: Yes.

Question: Hello. My question is regarding CDC research efforts, whether there is a budget for coronavirus, and how this is being spent around the world. I’d be interested in getting an outline on that, if possible. Thank you.

Dr. Bennett: You bring up a really important point, that there are a number of questions about this virus that remain unanswered. And CDC is going to be helping countries that are interested in generating some of this knowledge to collect that information and share it with the world.

At this time I can’t give you a specific outline on the research activities that we have planned globally. But those research activities will be part of future activities.

Moderator: Our next question will go to Tsoanelo Jomane.

Question: The question is with regards to Lesotho. Of course, the country is landlocked by South Africa, and having learned that the onset of COVID-19 in the – in South Africa, of course, was because of travelers who had flown to Italy, and having – the country has learned that the strain of COVID-19 in China and Italy is different, and there are reports [inaudible] that Lesotho could sooner or later be grappling with the same strain that has caused problems in Italy. How could the CDC advise the country to prepare herself in as much as there have not been any reported or confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lesotho?

Dr. Bennett: There are a number of measures that are currently recommended by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for countries to consider implementing to help prevent the importation of the virus into their country, but also, once imported, to control the spread in the community.

And I think journalists have a really important role to play in getting information out to people about some of the things that they can do to help decrease the spread of COVID-19, such as reminding people about frequent hand-washing, about keeping their distance between themselves and others, covering their coughs and their sneezes with their elbow or shoulder, or using a tissue when washing – using a tissue, and then washing their hands, and then cleaning frequently touched surfaces.

Governments should be thinking about the measures that they may need to use to control the spread of the outbreak, and they shouldn’t wait to prepare to respond to the outbreak. They should be preparing now. CDC remains committed to helping governments with that preparation.

Moderator: Thank you so much. Our next question will go to Natasha Khan.

Question: From the Wall Street Journal. I’m wondering if you found the disclosure of information from the China CDC in the early days of the outbreak – so in January – timely and complete.

Dr. Bennett: I think that there are a number of lessons that are learned from the experience in China. We are trying to keep up with the information that is coming out from China now that might inform the U.S. domestic response, but also our activities in other countries. We were part of the WHO mission that did go to China to try to learn more about the virus and to better understand the severity and spread of COVID-19, and the report that was produced by CDC staff as well as the other members of that mission are available publicly on the website for WHO.

Moderator: Great. Our next question will go to Shujun Yu.

Question: Tell us about the CDC’s cooperation with China. So in which areas do you think the CDC and China could work together at this time, since China already has the situation under control but the U.S. is to become the epicenter? And are there any – are there any obstacles to – for the two sides to work together? Thank you.

Dr. Bennett: CDC and the U.S. Government have a long history of collaborating on public health activities, both to respond to outbreaks in the United States but also in China and other countries. We continue to look to China to share their best practices and the lessons learned from their outbreak so that we can better use those measures to control the outbreak in the United States, and also to learn the best practices for implementing some of these activities in other countries.

Moderator: Our next question will go to Gonzalo Zegarra. Please go ahead, your line is open.

Question: Hi, good morning. The world sits in a situation in which each country has a different methodology and [inaudible] massively and others don’t report the number of negative results of the tests. How does the CDC work to assess the expansion of the pandemic with these different approaches?

Dr. Bennett: It is true that countries are using different testing strategies and different test kits to detect the virus in their country and to understand more about the spread of the virus within their country. At this time, I think it’s really important for us to keep working with countries regardless of the number of cases to implement and use the best community control measures that we have available to us, use the lessons that have been learned from countries that are already long into combating this virus, that we could do the best we can to control the spread of the virus in every country.

Moderator: Our next question will go to Melo Acuna.

Question: From the Philippines. How successful were you in your partnership with various governments to stop COVID-19, especially in Asia, where there are cultural differences, and what lessons have we learned from this pandemic? Thank you.

Dr. Bennett: So it is really important to keep in mind cultural and social differences when responding to any outbreak of any infectious disease, and I think that’s why it’s really important that governments and partners be familiar with the guidance that WHO is recommending and that CDC is recommending, and all of that material is available on their website. Every country needs to think about how they’re going to adapt those guidance documents to best implement the best measures in their country to control the spread of the virus.

Our CDC has a number of dedicated staff in many countries who are committed to helping governments figure out the best way forward in terms of using those measures and controlling the spread of the virus.

Moderator: Thank you. And our last question will go to Sergio Morales.

Question: I am calling you from Guatemala. So in our culture, our principal concern is that the virus will enter the country through the flights of deportees. And do you know what treatment is being done in this emergency in the detention centers for migrants to try to prevent this happening?

Dr. Bennett: A number of countries have focused on travel restrictions to prevent the importation or the entry of the virus into their country, but we at CDC and the WHO think that travel restrictions alone are not enough to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus around the world. Countries should be thinking about the measures they’re going to be taking within their country once the virus has entered to control the spread in their communities. There are a number of documents available to countries on WHO’s website and on CDC’s website that countries can adapt to the country context so that they can implement the best measures for their country, and CDC remains committed to helping those countries figure out which measures will need to be adapted and how they should be implemented in each country.

Moderator: Thank you so much. Unfortunately, that is all of the time that we have for questions. I know there’s a lot of questions still in the queue, so I apologize if we did not get to your question, but we do – Dr. Bennett has other things that she has to do today.

Dr. Bennett, I would turn it over to you if you have any final remarks to share with the group.

Dr. Bennett: Thank you, everyone, for joining the call today. CDC’s work to support countries will continue, and we all remain vulnerable until every country is free of COVID-19. Please continue to do your part by washing your hands frequently with soap and water, keeping distance between you and others, staying home if you’re sick, and practicing other protective measures we discussed today.

Thank you again journalists for joining us. Stay healthy, stay safe.

Moderator: Thank you so much, Dr. Bennett. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Dr. Bennett for her participation, and I also thank all of our callers for participating today. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Office of International Media Engagement at PAIMEStaff@state.gov. Thank you very much.