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February 25, 2020

As a coronavirus pandemic looms, CDC warns Americans to prepare for 'disruptive' interventions

'We want to make sure the American public is prepared,' officials say

Americans should be prepared for severe disruptions to their everyday lives as the threat of a coronavirus pandemic looms larger, federal health officials said Tuesday. 

With community spread of COVID-19 rapidly expanding in other countries, including Italy, Japan and South Korea, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shifting from a containment strategy to one of mitigation.

It is only a matter of time before community spread begins in the United States, according to Dr. Nancy Messonnier. CDC officials want the American public to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. 

"As more and more countries experience community spread, successful contaminant at our borders becomes harder and harder," Messonnier said. "Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in our country."

Because there is not a vaccine for COVID-19, nor are there any medications to treat it, Messonnier said non-pharmaceutical interventions will be "the most important tools" in the face of a pandemic. And they may need to be implemented in a proactive, aggressive way.

Under a severe pandemic, schools may need to implement internet schooling as businesses increase remote work and teleconferencing. Childcare centers may close. Communities may need to cancel mass gatherings. Health care systems may need to boost telemedicine services or change the way they triage patients. 

Additionally, the household members of people infected with coronavirus may need to voluntarily quarantine themselves. And surfaces would need to be frequently cleaned everywhere – both at home and in public. 

Those efforts are not yet necessary, Messonnier stressed. But she said Americans need to prepare for such interventions, acknowledging that they could cause the loss of income. 

"We have, for many weeks, been saying that while we hope that this is not going to be severe, we are planning as if it is," Messonnier said. 

There are 14 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States – 12 stemming from people who became infected while traveling in China and two others who are close contacts of another infected person. 

Another 40 Americans – all passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship – have tested positive for coronavirus. Three other Americans, repatriated from Hubei Province in China, also have coronavirus. 

Worldwide, there are more than 80,000 coronavirus cases, including 2,700 deaths. Though China still has the vast majority of coronavirus cases, the disease has begun spreading in other countries. CDC officials acknowledged that the virus has nearly reached pandemic stage.

"People are concerned about this situation – I would say rightfully so," Messonnier said. "I'm concerned about the situation. The CDC is concerned about the situation."

Italy, which has more than 200 cases, has locked down about 50,000 people in 10 northern towns. South Korea and Japan also have hundreds of cases. 

This rapid expansion has raised the level of concern among U.S. health officials to the point that they expect community spread to begin sometime in the coming weeks. 

"What we still don't know is what that will look like," Messonnier said. "We can have community spread in the United States and have it be reasonably mild. We can have community spread in the U.S. and have it be very severe.

"We don't know when it's going to happen. I think it would be nice for everybody if we knew that on this date, this is going to start. We don't know that. ... We want to make sure the American public is prepared."

The CDC is still working to make diagnostic test kits available to state and local labs after many of the initial kits sent out proved faulty. Only 12 state and local labs currently have kits capable of testing samples. The other samples must be sent to the CDC, but Messonnier said there is no backlog. 

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