Photo: NIAID-RML via AP
Top U.S. public health officials said Tuesday that Americans should prepare for the spread of the coronavirus in communities across the 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," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a media briefing Tuesday.
Measures to contain the virus in the U.S. so far have involved restricting travel to and from China — the center of the outbreak — and isolating cases identified so far in this country.
But Messonnier said that evidence that the virus is spreading countries outside of Asia, such as Iran and Italy, has raised CDC's "level of concern and expectation that we'll see spread" in the U.S.
As of Tuesday, more than 300 cases had been reported in Italy. Iran had nearly 100 cases.
"When you start to see sustained transmission in other countries throughout the world, it's inevitable that it will come to the United States," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News.
Messonnier cautioned Americans to prepare for disruptions to their daily lives, including school closings, working from home and delayed elective medical procedures, as efforts to contain and control the possible spread in the U.S. may accelerate in the coming weeks.
"We should all be dusting off our pandemic preparedness plans and rehearse them very quickly," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said. "The core concept is social distancing."
This means that business leaders, for example, should start considering who can work from home. Perhaps the time will come, experts said, to observe religious practices and ceremony at home, rather than larger community gatherings at places of worship. And families should start asking themselves how they would handle a week or two at home, without traveling for food, medicine or entertainment.
"There has to be a shift in mindset," Dr. Bruce Aylward, team leader for the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, said during a media briefing Tuesday. Aylward and a group of international scientists —which included members of the U.S. CDC and National Institutes of Health — spent several weeks in China learning about the country's coronavirus response.
Aylward said that hospitals can help prepare for potential coronavirus spread by focusing on resources that would count most in keeping the most vulnerable patients alive: isolated hospital beds, ventilators to help people breathe and personal protective equipment for health care workers.
Matt Birnholz, MDPeer