As a novel coronavirus spreads throughout the world and new infections mount in the United States, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams urged people to be cautious, concerned and, of course, prepared.
But, he added, uttering his words deliberately, people should not panic.
“We are going to see more cases of coronavirus in this country,” Adams told a gathering Monday at the Yale School of Public Health. “But we’ve been here before: H1N1, MERS, SARS. We know the playbook. We know what to do.”
Speaking to a capacity audience during a Grand Rounds lecture, Adams, M.D., M.P.H., veered from his remarks on child and maternal health to address the health topic on everyone’s mind.
Dressed in formal military attire, Adams, who is a vice admiral, said the United States is monitoring the coronavirus closely and taking the necessary steps to minimize its impact and spread. In the United States there are now over 150 confirmed cases and at least 11 deaths as of this week.
Adams said he would be shocked if the number of deaths related to the novel coronavirus in the United States approaches anywhere near the number of deaths associated with the seasonal flu (about 18,000 during the most recent flu season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Adams said that people can lessen their chances of becoming infected — or infecting others — by taking simple steps, such as cleaning surfaces with disinfectants, covering their coughs, washing their hands frequently and even changing how they greet others.
He practiced what he preached as he entered the school, giving each person in a gauntlet lined up to meet him an elbow bump instead of a traditional handshake. Germs are easily transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, he noted.
His visit to the Yale School of Public Health, attended by Renée Coleman-Mitchell, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, and Heather Aaron, deputy commissioner, both alumnae of the School of Public Health, was part of a two-day visit to Connecticut where Adams met with a host of political and health leaders to discuss the novel coronavirus and other health matters.
Adams spent much of the time during his visit to YSPH discussing the importance of child and maternal health, saying that far too many young mothers die in childbirth in the United States. Mothers today are more likely to die in childbirth than were their mothers.
“If you don’t take care of your mothers, and you don’t take care of your babies, it’s a pretty good indicator that you are not taking care of anyone else out there,” Adams said.
Serious disparities in mortality remain along racial and ethnic lines. Women from underserved groups, especially African American women, are as much as six times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as their peers. As many as 60 percent of maternal deaths are preventable.
The Surgeon General’s office is examining what is happening at the local level and is working on a “call to action” on maternal health that will be released later this year.
“Health equity has to be embedded into everything [we] do,” Adams said.
Adams also cautioned against the use of marijuana, especially by pregnant women and new mothers, noting that the drug is far more potent today than it was in previous decades. Marijuana is legal in several states and being considered for legalization in others, including Connecticut.
“No pregnant woman or no young person should be using these products,” he told the gathering of students, faculty, and other public health and medical professionals. Adams recently issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on marijuana use in the developing brain.
The father of three children, ages 15, 14 and 10, Adams said he shares many of the concerns and challenges faced by parents across the country.
“They don’t care that I am the surgeon general of the United States,” he said. “Every day, I’m worried if they are going to succumb to the vaping epidemic that is sweeping our country, or to the availability of marijuana.”
Prior to becoming surgeon general, Adams served as the Indiana state health commissioner from 2014 to 2017. His current priorities include the opioid epidemic and addiction, oral health, and the links between community health and both economic prosperity and national security. In response to the opioid epidemic, Adams issued the first Surgeon General’s Advisory in 13 years, urging more Americans to carry naloxone, an FDA-approved medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Adams’ visit began with presentations by YSPH Professor and Office of Public Health Practice Director Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, Ph.D., on his ongoing work scaling up breastfeeding programs in the United States to improve maternal and infant health outcomes; and by Yale School of Medicine and Public Health Associate Professor Megan Smith, M.P.H., Dr.P.H., who outlined her efforts to improve mental health outcomes for new mothers.
Adams listened intently and peppered both Pérez-Escamilla and Smith with questions about their programs’ implementation and outcomes. He was impressed with what he learned.
“I am 100 percent supportive of both of your initiatives,” he said. “I love both of these programs.”