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Coronavirus Isn’t Dr. Woody Myers’s First Crisis

After leading Indiana’s response to the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate has a plan for Indiana to weather the coronavirus. Will we listen?

Woody Myers has a new urgency about him these days. You can hear it in his voice.

On Tuesday, hours before he would hold a conference call with Indiana reporters to criticize the states slow reaction to the threat of the coronavirus, I could hear it. He seemed more lively. The sentences came more quickly. A new urgency seemed to grip him. Since he announced that he would run to challenge popular incumbent Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb last year, Myers has run what you could generously describe as a lethargic campaign. He has struggled to fundraise. He hasnt barnstormed Indiana. And hes grasped to find some big, bold proposals to garner the kind of earned media hell need to raise his profile and defeat Holcomb.

Now, though, it seems the moment matches the man. A product of Shortridge High School, Stanford University, and Harvard Medical School, the businessman has seen epidemics before. In 1985, then-Governor Robert D. Orr appointed him as state health commissioner, and he presided over Indianas response to the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the Ryan White era.

Eight days ago, on March 10, as other Indiana elected officials seemed slow to respond to the threat of COVID-19 (coronavirus), Myers issued a five-step plan for containing the virus and its fallout, from creating a statewide database of negative-pressure hospital rooms (the kind of spaces necessary to prevent its airborne spread) toward canceling events like March Madness.

Yesterday, he went a step further, calling for an emergency session of Indianas General Assembly to pass an emergency paid-leave law. Here, we talk to Myers about how the coronavirus is similar to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, what Indiana should be doing to get ahead of the curve, and more.

Do you feel like this pandemic has given your campaign a new urgency?
I wouldn’t quite put it like that. I think that its given us all a reason to focus on what is an unprecedented series of events. For many, a tragedy for personal reasons and for economic reasons. So, it’s given us new focus, thats for sure.

Do you know anybody who is infected with coronavirus yet?
I probably do, as do you. The problem is that we don’t know, because there has been insufficient testing. There are a number of people who are infected who don’t know that they are infected, and, who are today passing the virus from one person to another. These individuals are called vectors. Many of them will get sick only mildly or not at all. Thats the biggest problem we have is that the testing availability has been so spotty, poor, insufficient, whatever term you’d like to use, that we are really, truly behind the eight-ball with respect to knowing how extensive the epidemic is, or the pandemic is.

How would you grade Governor Eric Holcombs response so far?
I believe that the administration could have done much more, much faster. I think that he has been far more reactive than proactive. This was a crisis. Its unlike any that has befallen us in recent memory. I believe strongly that the role of the governor is to exert in all dimensions and that includes healthcare or public health. I don’t think that weve done a good job. The governor has left far more questions open than hes been able to answer.

What should he have done?
We should have put together a commission, a task force. A leadership group of the state’s most important leaders in all sectors. Not just public health and in healthcare, but, in laboratory medicine, in retail, in labor, in judiciary law enforcement. At a very high level, this group should have been convened to begin discussing weeks ago the implications that this could have and what we should be doing to prepare for it.

We don’t know in Indiana whether we have a viral infection in confined settings and where they are. We don’t have, to my knowledge, a plan of what we’re going to do when we find it.

So, in any nursing home, its clear that the patients are there because thats their home of last resort. They cant care for themselves. Theres no other spot easily available for them. What happens when the virus is detected there and how do we respond quickly? What about the people that work there and how are they being trained? Do they have the equipment that they need? Those are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed by multiple sectors. It’s not just healthcare.

Then even more concerning is the situation that would occur in jails and prisons. If we get a couple of confirmations at Michigan City Prison for instance, what are we going to do?

And, then, don’t get me started, please, on the planning thats required in the health facilities themselves. We know that negative pressure rooms are the right kinds of facility to take care of patients that have this virus. Because, if you don’t have a negative pressure room, the likelihood that the virus can be spreading outside of that hospital room is high. So, what you want are rooms where the flow of air does not extend outside the door. There are only so many of those rooms available in hospitals throughout our state.

What about testing? As we are speaking, only 193 Hoosiers have been tested so far. Does that concern you?
We need a much better mechanism to test patients. Ive called for drive-through testing, where we use parking lots as sites to see patients under cancer canopies. Where healthcare workers can assess people as they drive through in their vehicle and then make the decisions as to whether or not they need to be tested.

Does any of this remind you, or, have you been thinking much about your experience back when you were the director of the state health department during the HIV/AIDS crisis?
There are some similarities. I think that I could look back on that time and know that the worst disease in healthcare is fear. Fear was present there then. And its present now.

Adam Wren writes about business, politics, and crime for Indianapolis Monthly—often in the same story. Follow him on Twitter @adamwren or visit his website at adamwren.me.
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