On Tuesday, a top US health official urged the American public, for the first time, to begin preparing for “severe” disruption to their daily lives. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters during a conference call that the agency now believes a sustained US outbreak of the coronavirus is likely inevitable. “The data over the last week showing the spread of Covid-19 in other countries has raised our concerns and raised the expectation that we are going to have community spread here,” she said.
In addition to Italy, South Korea and Iran are both experiencing explosive new outbreaks, suggesting that the coronavirus is picking up steam elsewhere in the world, even as it slows down in China, where more than 77,000 people so far have gotten sick and 2,663 have died. In the US,14 people who’ve traveled from China, or their close contacts, have so far been diagnosed. Another 43 US residents returning from other parts of the world have been infected and since repatriated and quarantined, Messonnier said. Most of them caught the virus onboard the ill-fated cruise ship, the Diamond Princess.
On Monday, the White House sent lawmakers a request for $2.5 billion in emergency funding that would pay to prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak. The funds would also go to accelerating vaccine development and procuring equipment and supplies, a White House budget office spokeswoman told The Associated Press. Democrats in Congress have said it’s not enough, citing the need for expanding lab capacity, beefing up additional airport screening, and reimbursing the Pentagon, which is currently housing quarantined evacuees from China on several military bases.
Since the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began quarantining US citizens returning from Hubei earlier this month, non-governmental groups have been chipping in. The American Red Cross has provided those individuals with support items, including blankets, snacks, and stuffed animals. A spokesperson for the organization declined to answer specifics about supporting additional quarantine efforts, telling WIRED only that it is closely monitoring the evolving situation and working with government agencies and state officials to determine what Red Cross support may be needed in the coming days and weeks.
Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration fast-tracked a test developed by the CDC for diagnosing Covid-19. But technical issues with the kits have prevented their wide-scale rollout to the nation’s public health labs. As of Tuesday, only 12 labs in addition to CDC have testing capacity, said Messonnier. While there are currently no vaccines or drugs approved to treat Covid-19, researchers are moving swiftly to identify potential treatments, including a DARPA-backed search for protective antibodies that could be used for short-term protection by health care workers and the families of sick people.
According to Messonnier, the CDC is now evaluating non-pharmaceutical measures that could be employed to slow the spread of the virus. Potential interventions include environmental interventions such as surface cleaning and disinfecting, as well as more intrusive social distancing strategies like closing schools, canceling mass gatherings, and asking sick people to voluntarily stay home. She said the agency will be working with state and local public health departments to provide a tailored approach for different locations, depending on the circumstances.
In anticipation, Messonier asked citizens to start contacting their employers, health care networks, daycare providers, and children’s schools about contingency plans in the event of an outbreak in their community. “I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming, and the disruption to everyday life may be severe,” she said. “But these are the things that people need to start thinking about now.”
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