A virus that has killed more than 2,000 people in China has largely been contained so far in the United States. But a global health politics expert in Duluth says the quarantines that have kept hundreds of Americans confined to military bases for two weeks could backfire.

“When there’s that fear … that you’re going to be sent away from your family, that actually works against the sort of measures that we know tend to be effective in these sorts of outbreaks,” said Jeremy Youde, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Youde, who returned to UMD in July after a nine-year hiatus in which he taught at Australian National University, comes with substantial bona fides in the global health field. He’s chairman of the Global Health Section of the International Studies Association and a member of the editorial board of Global Health Governance, an academic journal.

There’s a better way to limit the spread of an infectious disease than a quarantine, Youde said in a telephone interview this week.

“There are ways that we can do contact tracing and just keep an eye on people,” he said. “And that tends to be more effective and also tends to be less disruptive to the other sorts of social systems that we have.”

The quarantine is the first put in place by the U.S. government in more than 50 years. But the history of quarantines is that they are resisted, and people are less willing to report that they may have been exposed to the disease, Youde said.

He said that has been borne out even in the epicenter of the present virus, COVID-19 (previously known as the novel coronavirus).

“The mayor of Wuhan (China) himself was saying that of the 11 million people, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million people probably got out of the city right before the quarantine was imposed,” Youde said. “So that ends up working against exactly the sorts of things we’re trying to do.”

Isolation makes sense if people exposed to the virus are experiencing symptoms, Youde said — just as someone who comes down with the flu ought to stay home. But governmental bodies can take their role too far.

He cited the incident involving a nurse from Maine who treated ebola victims in Sierra Leone in 2014. Upon returning, she first was quarantined in New Jersey and then was the subject of an attempt by the state of Maine to confine her to her home. Such governmental acts send the wrong message, Youde said.

“What we need to do at this point, when we have these sorts of outbreaks taking place, is we need to make sure that people feel like they can trust the government, that they can trust the public health authorities and that they can engage with them,” he said.

On other aspects of COVID-19

  • Youde said it’s too early to tell how substantial the disease ultimately will become. “But the fact that we are calling international attention to this, that there is some measure of cooperation that’s happening — that decreases the chance that this is likely to become something that’s going to be an overwhelming worldwide pandemic.”

  • The Chinese government has worked more readily with international partners than it did during the start of the SARS epidemic in 2002-03. But its reliability is still uncertain. On Thursday, China reported a drop in the number of new cases, but it also changed its definition of COVID-19 cases, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "The World Health Organization has been trying to work with the Chinese government to get a handle on their definitions," Youde said.

  • Aside from taking the basic precautions we should take in the winter anyway, people in the Upper Midwest don’t need to guard against COVID-19. “You know, if you’re going to worry about any sort of respiratory illness, worry about the flu,” Youde said. Minnesota has had 58 flu deaths, including two pediatric deaths, so far this flu season, according to information the state Department of Health released Thursday. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the state.

  • And don’t be concerned about a package that arrives from overseas. “There’s nothing that would suggest that there’s any sort of danger from people getting goods that have been shipped from Wuhan or from anywhere else in China, for that matter,” Youde said.