Amid growing signs that coronavirus infections are now occurring around the globe, federal and state officials began to lay the groundwork with the public to prepare for the spread of the new pathogen in the United States, where cases to date have been rare.
“Now it’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen,” said Anne Schuchat of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “And how many people in this country will become infected and how many of those will develop severe or more complicated disease.”
Confirmed cases of what health experts are calling COVID-19 have now been reported in more than 40 countries, including a first South American case, in Brazil. In recent days, outbreaks have been spreading in northern Italy, Iran and other locations, well beyond the original epicenter in central China, where nearly 80,000 cases and more than 2,700 deaths have occurred, according to the World Health Organization.
Health experts say COVID-19 has a mortality rate of around 2% to 3%, as compared to the flu, which is fatal in fewer than 1% of cases.
In the United States, the CDC has now confirmed 15 cases in the United States, mostly among people who traveled to China. In addition, 45 people who contracted the flu-like disease abroad and have since come home, to quarantine and similar conditions.
During a press conference Wednesday evening, President Donald Trump defended his administration’s response to the emergence of the disease, and said Vice President Mike Pence would lead the government’s efforts in the future.
Health officials walked a fine line between alarm and giving the public necessary information to prepare for the changes that could become necessary in day-to-day life.
“Current global circumstances suggest it’s likely that this virus will cause a pandemic,” said Schuchat, a doctor who serves as principal deputy director for the CDC. “In that case, risk assessment would be different and new strategies tailored to local circumstances would need to be implemented.”
Among the steps that could be taken would be urging schools to close and having lessons delivered to students online. Child care facilities could also be shuttered, and employers will want to consider having staffers work from home. Large gatherings could also be postponed or canceled.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said preparations are ramping up. He noted that there are currently no confirmed cases in the state, but said it was prudent to anticipate that there would be.
“It’s pretty clear from financial markets the past couple of days, it’s pretty clear when you look at South Korea, Iran, Italy, that this is not going away anytime soon,” he said.
“We had a whole-of-government meeting this morning in Newark, just going over, once again, protocols, pre-emptive action — what do we do if X or Y happens,” he said, during remarks Wednesday at an unrelated news event at William Paterson University. “We’re doing everything to get out ahead of this and also be prepared as possible if something hits us.”
Murphy also said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli on Wednesday was to convene a conference call with all hospitals in the state about preparations, noting that the state’s designated center for handling cases, University Hospital in Newark, “has a capacity of only so much.”
State health officials echoed the call for preparations.
“The main message here is that everyone should begin to prepare and think about what might happen in their lives if there is disruption should this virus come to the United States and New Jersey and begin to spread, person to person, here,” said Dr. Lisa McHugh, program coordinator for Infectious Disease Epidemiology with the state Health Department.
During his press conference Wednesday, Trump said he was confident the steps his administration had taken — including travel restrictions and border controls — would continue to contain the impact of the disease in the United States.
“We’re totally prepared,” he said, while urging that precautions be taken “just in case.”
Trump also accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats who had been critical of the government response to the coronavirus, of trying to cause a panic, rather than working with the administration on a solution.
Joining the president was Schuchat, who credited the containment policies of the administration with limiting the spread of the disease in the United States, thus far.
She advised people to wash their hands with soap frequently and thoroughly, contain coughs within sleeves and stay home from work or school if feeling ill.
Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO at University Hospital, urged residents to stay informed. “It’s important to pay attention and just be vigilant over the next few weeks,” he said.
Elnahal, a former state Health commissioner, also urged people who have yet to do so to get a flu shot, noting that the regular flu can be a deadly disease.