The spread of the new coronavirus has become increasingly likely in the United States, public health officials suggested, as the sickness that started in China has infected people in 39 countries including Italy and South Korea where an American service member has contracted the virus.
During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Nancy Messonnier, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said it was “not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”
Messonnier’s warning included a suggestion that people start asking their schools about plans for dismissal and for conducting classes online if the coronavirus, now called Covid-19, affects their communities.
Stocks fell sharply lower on Monday and Tuesday amid concerns about the effect on the global economy.
As of earlier this week, over 80,000 people had tested positive for Covid-19, which claimed the lives of over 2,700 people. In the United States, the number of confirmed cases, including those from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, had reached 57. None of those cases is in New York, where 26 tests have come back negative and one is still pending, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Bettina Fries, the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, said the infections in Italy and South Korea signaled a new phase in the epidemic.
“We are now having these new cases where we can’t even link them” to exposure to people who have traveled to China, Fries said. “The genie is out of the bottle. Once that happens, it’ll be that much harder” to contain the virus.
Fries described the virus, which health officials believe is transmitted through droplets from people carrying the infection, as “behaving much more like the flu,” which is why the CDC is preparing for cases in the United States.
With other coronaviruses, including severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome, the majority of patients who transmitted these diseases had symptoms like high fevers. That may not be the case with Covid-19, as patients that are “asymptomatic could be shedding the virus,” making it more difficult to contain, Fries said.
Medical professionals don’t have any medication or vaccine, while the world population, which hasn’t been exposed to this new virus, also hasn’t developed any kind of resistance.
If pockets of the outbreak appear in the United States, it is “conceivable that schools could shut down and that there could be rules where people self quarantine” for the required 14 days, Fries said.
Fries added that it’s important to protect health care providers who are on the front lines in this battle. Stony Brook is continuing to make contingency plans in the event of confirmed cases of this coronavirus, which includes making space available if necessary. In the event of an outbreak, the hospital would change its policy of having trainees, residents and medical students go in and out of rooms with doctors on rounds, she said.
Fries added that the warmer weather may not cause a reduction in the incidence of the virus. “Every virus is different,” Fries said.