Federal health officials said Tuesday that Americans should prepare to see a nationwide spread of the new coronavirus that has so far killed around 2,700 people worldwide.
Nancy Messonnier, a director with the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that the U.S. is “buying more time to prepare” for likely outbreaks with its current containment measures.
“To date, our containment strategies have been largely successful. We have relatively few cases in the United States,” Messonnier said.
She continued: “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
Community spread, in public health lingo, means that people become infected without knowing how or where they became infected.
“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
Fears about the virus, named COVID-19, caused a massive 1,000-point drop in the stock market on Monday and another dramatic dip on Tuesday as the Trump administration scrambled to take action. On Monday night, the administration requested a supplemental $2.5 billion budget ― which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized as insufficient ― to help battle the virus.
The markets appeared affected again after the CDC’s warning Tuesday morning.
In response, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow made wildly misleading claims about the virus on CNBC aimed at quelling fears.
“We have contained this,” Kudlow erroneously said, adding, “I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight.”
So far, COVID-19 meets two out of three criteria for a pandemic, which is defined as the worldwide spread of a new disease.
Authorities have been seeing a steady uptick in cases that lack a known source of exposure to the virus, Messonnier said.
She outlined three categories of protective measures that Americans can take: personal measures, which include hand-washing; community measures, which include “social distancing efforts” such as quarantines and school closures; and environmental measures, which involve frequent surface-cleaning.
“I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to daily life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now,” Messonnier said.
She encouraged parents, in particular, to make alternate child care plans.
“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask about plans for teleschool,” she said.
The CDC also recommends that businesses increase the use of videoconferencing to avoid physical gatherings in the event of an outbreak.
COVID-19 is different from other novel viruses in that it has a relatively low fatality rate of 2%, unlike viruses that have caused panic in the past. Avian flu, for example, has a fatality rate of around 60%. Because COVID-19 also has the ability to spread without causing severe symptoms ― and for some people, no symptoms at all ― an article in The Atlantic this week predicted that a large swath of the population is likely to contract it within the next year.
Messonnier also urged Americans to understand what they are up against, saying: “As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder.”
As of Tuesday, COVID-19 has sickened more than 80,000 people globally after appearing in China’s Wuhan region late last year. There have been just 14 confirmed cases in the U.S. so far, with an additional 39 cases among people who contracted the disease overseas and then returned to U.S. shores.