Health officials urged Americans to start preparing for the likelihood that coronavirus will spread in the U.S. as the number of cases continue to rise nationally and in countries outside of China.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control said that a bigger outbreak in the U.S. is imminent.
“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country anymore but a question of when this will happen,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC.
Messonnier said that Americans “need to prepare for a significant disruption” to their lives and plan for possible school closures, find out about teleworking options and if their health care providers offer telemedicine options.
“We are asking the American public to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad,” she said.
The sudden urgency after weeks of emphasizing that the risk to the average American is “low” comes from the abrupt spread of the new coronavirus, officially termed COVID-19, in countries outside of China. Over the weekend, cases of coronavirus soared in Italy (283 cases and seven deaths), South Korea (977 cases and 10 deaths) and Iran (95 cases and 16 deaths). Austria and Croatia also said they’ve seen their first cases.
“The spread in other countries has raised our level of concern and raised our level of expectation that we are going to have community spread here,” Messonnier said. “We’re asking folks in every sector as well as people within their families to start planning for this, because as we’ve seen from the recent countries that have had community spread, when it’s hit in those countries it has moved quite rapidly so we want to make sure that the American public is prepared.”
Currently, the U.S. has 53 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Of those, 12 cases occurred in people who recently returned from trips to China before news of the outbreak spread and two cases were from their close contacts. The other 39 cases are in people who were repatriated by the State Department back to the U.S., either in one of the three chartered flights of Americans who had been living in China, or from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had been quarantined in Yokohama, Japan.
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration opted to fly the American Diamond Princess passengers back to the U.S. against the CDC’s recommendation. Before boarding the flight, 14 of the U.S. passengers had coronavirus — that number has since risen to 39, as they remain quarantined on a military base.
Messonnier said that the CDC is unsure if the U.S. will have as dramatic of a spread as China, Italy and South Korea.
“What we still don’t know is what that will look like. We can have community spread in the United States and have it be relatively mild and we can have community spread in the U.S. and have it be very severe, so that is what we don’t completely know yet, and we of course don’t completely know when it’s going to happen,” she said.
The hope, Messonnier said, is that the U.S. will be “overprepared.”
“I continue to hope that in the end we will look back and feel like we were overprepared, but that is a better place to be in than being underprepared,” she said. “Any preparedness we do as a country and within schools and businesses and our families will always be helpful for whatever the next event is.”
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