How the U.S. Is Preparing for a Major Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Health experts believe the new coronavirus (COVID-19) will start to spread more widely in the United States.
  • Much of the time, people who’ve contracted the virus are asymptomatic and pass it on before they even realize they’re sick.
  • As a result, containment is difficult, making the risk of community spread here in the United States high.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Tuesday that we’re probably going to see an uptick in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the United States in the coming months.

There’ve only been 15 cases diagnosed in the United States so far and 47 American travelers who contracted the disease either in China or on a cruise ship in Japan, but the virus is known to spread readily between people, likely through respiratory droplets that are expelled through coughs or sneezes.

In China, for example, more than 77,000 have contracted it in just over 2 months. The virus is also gaining momentum in a number of countries: Italy, Iran, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand.

Much of the time, people who’ve contracted the virus are asymptomatic and pass it on before they even realize they’re sick.

As a result, containment is difficult, making the risk of community spread here in the United States high, according to health officials.

Even though our risk for experiencing a pandemic has increased, health officials say there’s no need to panic.

But we do need to prepare.

“It’s not so much of 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 director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a press conference Tuesday.

What would a pandemic look like?

We still don’t have a concrete understanding of how severe or fatal the disease is, but health experts expect that while there will be a range in symptom severity from person to person, most cases will be mild.

In the United States, no one has died due to the disease yet, according to Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Some people with COVID-19 may experience a runny nose or be totally asymptomatic (have no symptoms). Yet others may develop a cough, shortness of breath, pneumonia, or in serious cases, die.

Other strains of the coronavirus have caused about a quarter of our common colds.

Therefore it’s possible that with this new disease, people may appear to simply have a version of the common cold, according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

But if people have mild symptoms, they may continue to venture out into public and transmit it to others who may develop much more severe symptoms.

It’s this ability to spread quickly from those with mild symptoms and then infect and potentially be fatal for others that can set us up for a deadly pandemic.

“Just because something is a pandemic does not really speak to its severity. It just tells you there’s going to be widespread infection, and it may be disruptive because any type of infectious disease outbreak can be disruptive,” Adalja said. “It does not mean that it is going to be cataclysmic.”

Adalja says a COVID-19 pandemic may be on par with the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. More than 60 million people contracted it, and it killed more than 12,000 in the United States.

However, that disease had a lower death rate than COVID-19: 0.02 percent compared with approximately 2 percent for COVID-19.

“It has the capacity to spread efficiently between humans, and we know that respiratory viruses that have that potential are not something that can be contained,” Adalja said.

There’s also no population immunity to it, meaning it has the potential to infect many.

How the U.S. is preparing

Already, the United States is focused on detecting, tracking, and isolating all cases.

Officials are screening travelers at points of entry and enacting travel advisories in high-risk areas.

People who test positively for COVID-19 are being quarantined until they’re no longer contagious.

Meanwhile, research is already underway for a vaccine, antiviral treatments, and better diagnostic tests.

According to Adalja, human clinical trials evaluating vaccines will probably begin within a couple months, though we wouldn’t have a vaccine ready to roll out to the public for another year or so.

The goal of all of these efforts is to slow the introduction of the disease in the United States and buy ourselves more time to prepare for a potential pandemic.

Still, COVID-19 is expected to become increasingly disruptive in coming weeks, and further efforts will be necessary to minimize transmission.

Hospitals may experience a surge in patient visits, and big gatherings may be postponed or canceled.

We’ll likely see companies needing to revisit their work-from-home policies and use of phone or video meetings.

Schools may split up students into smaller groups to avoid quick transmission if the virus does strike, or there may be school closures.

It’s going to be all about social distancing, says Schaffner.

If and when cases pick up, “we should try to avoid as much contact with each other as possible,” Schaffner said, noting that institutions should start focusing on how they’ll manage to get through several weeks without having people close to one another.

As we learn more about COVID-19, preventive efforts and policies — which Adalja says will be made at a local or state level — will likely shift to meet each community’s needs.

The bottom line 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a coronavirus pandemic may be brewing in the United States, saying it’s not a question of if but a question of exactly when.

The United States is working on quickly identifying and isolating new cases. Research for a vaccine, treatments, and better diagnostic tests is well underway.

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