It is only a matter of time until COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, formerly known as 2019-nCoV – begins to spread within US communities, top US health officials said Tuesday.
With more than 80,000 people infected around the world, the situation in the US is “rapidly evolving and expanding”. At this time, the virus is not currently spreading in American communities, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports at least 14 confirmed cases, prompting warnings that transmission between people is likely to continue.
"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," Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during an online media briefing on February 25.
It comes after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, though it has not yet declared it a pandemic. Transmission of the virus in communities around the world is appearing without sources of known exposure, triggering health officials to begin new strategies that are uniquely tailored to conditions at the local level. Already, the virus has caused illness resulting in death and sustained person-to-person transmission – two criteria for the consideration of being a pandemic. Health experts say that worldwide spread of the virus would prompt a pandemic designation.
A dozen travel-related cases and two cases of person-to-person spread has been documented in the US as of February 24. Mitigation and prevention measures are changing almost daily and containment measures have been largely successful, but that becomes more and more difficult as the virus continues to spread. To combat the virus, the CDC is turning to the Community Mitigation Guidelines To Prevent Pandemic Influenza, a 2017 report that provides a framework for the current strategy to tackle the potential pandemic in an “aggressive, proactive way.”
Messonnier adds that the situation may seem “overwhelming” and that people may experience severe disruption in their everyday life, but protective measures need to be considered now. Currently, there is no vaccination or medicine to treat the pathogen and experts recommend the public follow non-pharmaceutical interventions as the first step in protection. This includes self-imposed quarantines if you or someone you know becomes ill, limiting face-to-face contact in community settings, and cleaning surfaces often and thoroughly. When possible, use telepresence for doctor visits, work, and perhaps even schooling.
“Now is the time for business, hospitals, communities, schools, and everyday people to begin preparing as well,” she said, adding that local measures will vary by the unique circumstances present within each community.