On Tuesday, health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a dire warning: The U.S. will almost certainly not be spared from the outbreak of a new pneumonia-causing coronavirus that threatens to sweep across the globe. It’s only a matter of time before the virus will start to spread locally, if it isn’t doing so already.
Since the outbreak first emerged in China this past December, U.S. health officials have taken a cautious but not-too-pessimistic tone, saying that the risk to the general public remains low. To date, there have been 53 documented cases of COVID-19—the disease caused by the virus—in the U.S., with most involving people who had recently traveled to China or who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that harbored an outbreak.
But COVID-19 has clearly spread beyond mainland China in recent weeks, setting off local outbreaks in countries including South Korea, Italy, and Iran. The chances of stopping it from reaching the U.S. entirely now appear slim to none.
“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in the United States,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, told reporters in a conference Tuesday. “It’s 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 also warned that the U.S. and the world at large need to start preparing for a potential pandemic.
“We really want to prepare the American public for the possibility that their lives will be disrupted because of this pandemic,” Messonnier told reporters, adding she had told her own children the same. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”
There are now at least 37 countries with reported cases of COVID-19, with several Middle East countries such as Iraq added to the list in recent days. Overall, there have been more than 80,000 reported cases and more than 2,700 deaths.
Yesterday, the World Health Organization declined to declare the outbreak a full-blown pandemic, saying they hadn’t seen evidence of an uncontained global spread or large-scale waves of serious disease and deaths yet. Some countries, including Vietnam, have appeared to contain their imported cases, while the reported rate of cases within China has now slowed down.
Ideally, it’s possible that any outbreaks within the U.S. could be reasonably managed and stopped from spreading too far. But the U.S. doesn’t seem anywhere near prepared to appropriately deal with a local outbreak. While South Korea has been able to test tens of thousands of residents, allowing officials to better track the disease, the U.S. so far has only tested a few hundred people. For weeks, U.S. state and local health departments have had to deal with faulty test kits sent out by the CDC, limiting their ability to diagnose patients. So there may already be clusters of undetected disease in the U.S.
The Trump administration has also repeatedly implemented or pushed for cuts to programs meant to track and prevent outbreaks, while some lawmakers have criticized the $2.5 billion in funding to combat the virus Trump recently requested from Congress as being far too little. Trump, however, continues to assure the public via tweet and press conferences that the situation is fully under control. But make no mistakes, a far-reaching outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. would undoubtedly be a disaster, even with a relatively low fatality rate.
“Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and transportation industry may also be affected,” the CDC’s website on COVID-19 now reads.