What COVID-19’s ‘inevitable’ spread in the United States actually means

“We are asking the American public to prepare in expectation that this will be bad."
a woman at her desk looks at a thermometer
The CDC is warning Americans to prepare for outbreaks. DepositPhoto

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The novel coronavirus will likely spread across U.S. communities, according to a recent update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is not a question of “if” but “when” the COVID-19 virus escalates within our borders, Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a Tuesday media briefing.

After observing rapid person-to-person spread in South Korea, Iran, and Italy, CDC officials now expect the trend to reach the United States. Researchers are currently scrambling to develop effective COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral drugs; meanwhile, the CDC urges US residents to prepare for possible containment measures like workplace and school closures, Messonnier said, depending on the spread’s severity. She also emphasized the importance of frequent hand-washing and surface disinfection to curtail the virus’ spread.

“We are asking the American public to prepare in expectation that this will be bad,” Messonnier said.

As of now, only 12 US states and localities have the resources to test for the novel coronavirus strain. The CDC can also test samples when notified by state health departments of potential cases, but some of their test kits have allegedly delivered “inconclusive results.” Messonnier is optimistic that commercial labs will soon develop tests and ramp up COVID-19 detection throughout the country.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts-based biotech company Moderna Therapeutics shipped its first batches of a potential coronavirus vaccine to the the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Time reported. They expect to begin human testing in April at the earliest, and approval could take months.

There are currently 59 confirmed U.S. cases, including 47 individuals brought back from abroad by the State Department. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported 80,239 global COVID-19 cases yesterday, 77,780 of which have occurred in China. There have been 2,700 total deaths, with 2,666 of them occurring within China.

Despite our country’s comparatively high reliance on private transportation, the virus could still spread to isolated rural areas, says Lisa Gralinski, a virologist at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health. She points to COVID-19’s emergence in every single Chinese province, not solely its urban centers.

“The bigger concern should be with the people who are more isolated and have a more difficult time getting to a doctor’s office, that they can become sick,” Gralinski says.

This outbreak is trickier to manage than the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, she notes, because the symptoms are subtler. Many individuals with COVID-19 have gone about their daily routines when experiencing its milder effects, likely mistaking it for a cold. That could make containment difficult in the United States as people head to school and work with only mild sniffles.

The CDC has offered vague warnings that mass gatherings like offices and schools may experience dropped attendance and a potential burden may fall on health infrastructure, law enforcement, and transportation. The agency also claims it’s “working with state, local, tribal, and territorial partners, as well as public health partners” to combat the public health threat. Besides such broad statements and a preparation plan, the CDC has not offered any specifics so far. The CDC did not respond to PopSci’s request for more information.

Over her 25 years at the CDC, Messonnier said at the press briefing, the organization has regularly practiced for such an epidemic within our borders. We already have helpful infrastructure in place: Existing flu virus surveillance systems could aid coronavirus containment efforts. Yet rapidly spreading diseases will always surprise us, she said.

Gralinski hopes that the US can contain the virus more quickly than China did, though she says there are no guarantees as to how the contagion might unfold. She recommends that U.S. residents remain alert and look out for the latest information. There’s no need to panic, she said, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’re stocked up on nonperishable food and other supplies in case you have to stay home sick or are advised to avoid public places due to an outbreak.

But Americans shouldn’t rush to buy supplies like face masks, Gralinksi says, which could trigger shortages and leave some medical professionals without necessary protective equipment. On Amazon, face masks now sell for exorbitant prices. Some of the more effective products—like the N95 respirators from Honeywell and 3M—are currently sold out. The World Health Organization does not recommend face masks as a preventative measure for healthy individuals; hand washing is much more effective.

Amid the global panic, Gralinski is impressed by China’s quick assistance to medical researchers. During the SARS epidemic last decade, the Chinese government waited several months to inform the WHO. This time around, Chinese researchers quickly published COVID-19’s genomic sequence online in January; therefore, scientists around the world could rapidly begin the race to develop tests, antiviral drugs, and vaccines.

“The rate at which the scientific community has been able to respond is really unprecedented,” she says.