US warns of ‘severe’ disruptions in everyday life if coronavirus outbreak hits

Schools could be closed, mass public gatherings suspended and businesses forced to have employees work remotely, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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A woman wearing a facemask waits with her luggage, at the international terminal at O’Hare airport, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Chicago.

A woman wearing a facemask waits with her luggage, at the international terminal at O’Hare airport.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A federal health official warned Tuesday that the deadly coronavirus could cause “severe” disruptions in the U.S. as global experts struggledto fend off the outbreakand avoid a pandemic.

But is it too late?

”Disruption to everyday life may be severe,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’sNational Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned at a news conference Tuesday. Schools could be closed, mass public gatherings suspended and businesses forced to have employees work remotely,she said.

Messonnier said the coronavirus already has caused sickness and death, and it has sustained person-to-person transmission. That’s two of the three factors for a pandemic, she said.

“As community spread is detected in more and more countries, the worldmoves closer to meeting the third criteria —worldwide spread of the new virus,” Messonnier said.

Although the World Health Organization as recently as Monday determined thatthe term pandemic”did not fit the facts,”experts say it very soon could.

Dennis Carroll, former director of the U.S. AID’s Global Health Security and Development Unit, credited China’s “extraordinary control measures” with delaying the spread of the virus. But he said avoiding a pandemic is “very unlikely.”

“The dramatic uptick of cases in South Korea, Iranand Italy are reflective of a self- sustaining spreading of the virus,” Carroll, who now leads theGlobal Virome Project science cooperative, told USA TODAY. “And a clear message that thehorse is out of the barn.”

Melissa Nolan, a medical doctor and professor of epidemiology at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, also cited the new clusters in Iran, now facing at least 61 cases and 15 deaths, and Italy, with 270 cases.

”If we continue to see focalized local transmission in areas outside of China, the WHO will need to reconvene,” Nolan told USA TODAY on Tuesday. “We are very close to seeing this virus becoming a pandemic.”

Nolan said responses to the outbreaks in Iran and Italy could help health officials in other countries prepare their ownmedical and quarantine policies ahead of an outbreak.That is crucial, says Robert Glatter, an emergency physician atNew York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, who says the world ison the “cusp” of pandemic.

“Trying to contain a disease which spreads like influenza, in this case COVID-19, is almost impossible,” he said. “We are talking about rapid-fire and sustained transmission.”

That means redirecting the focus fromcontainment measures to preparing for treatment of big numbers of sick patients with antivirals while continuing the effort to develop an effective vaccine, he said.

Beyond an epidemic, which involves a defined region,a pandemic has global impact. And it can be a moving target — there is no threshold, such as number of deaths or infections.

WHO, which could make apandemic declaration, describesa pandemic as“an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.”

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has not wanted to go there.

“I have spoken consistently about the need for facts, not fear,” Tedros said.“Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.”

Ogbonnaya Omenka, an assistant professor and public health specialist at Butler University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, says he understands those concerns. The main implication of declaring a pandemic is requiring, or at least further urging,national governments to prepare facilities and health workers to treat a lot of patients, Omenka told USA TODAY.

”Notonly is this costly, it may also trigger panic,” he warned. “Countries may as well put in place these plans without the official announcement.”

Tedros stressed that a pandemic declaration would not eliminate the need for health authorities to continue testing, limiting contact with the sick and encouraging frequent hand washing– the front-line defense.

He notedthat cases in China have beendeclining for the last three weeks.In Wuhan, where health services were stretched when the outbreak began in December, the fatality rate appears to be2% to4%. Elsewhere in China the fatality rate is less than 1%.

This season’s flu death rate in the U.S. is less than 0.1%,according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But more than 30 million Americans have suffered from the flu so far this season, while the global number of confirmed coronavirus caseshasn’t reached 100,000.

But there is a vaccine for the flu. Labs around the world are scrambling to develop one for the coronavirus.Trump has requested $2.5 billion to fight the virus, including over $1 billion toward developing a vaccine. Some congressional Democrats thinkthat may not be enough.

Trump, speaking Tuesday at a new conference in India, tamped down concerns, saying the virus was “very well under control in our country.” Confirmed cases totaled 53 on Tuesday, and no one has died in the U.S., although one American died in Wuhan.

“Wehave very few people with it and ... the people are all getting better,” Trump said.

Messionnier, however,acknowledged the CDC recently struck a more urgent tone in warnings about the virus in the United States. The proliferation of coronavirus in countries outside China raised the agency’s expectations the virus will spread here, too.

“People are concerned about this situation —I would say rightfully so,”Messonnier said. “But we are putting our concerns to work preparing. Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools and everyday people to begin preparing as well.”


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