A top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of the potential for “severe” disruptions to daily life in the event of a larger coronavirus outbreak, as authorities prepare for person-to-person transmission in the US.
“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country” will be infected, Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Tuesday.
She told reporters last week that officials had not observed the virus spreading among communities in the US, but it was “very possible, even likely” to occur.
The US has confirmed 14 cases in the country, including two instances of person-to-person transmission, in addition to 39 cases among individuals repatriated from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Last month, the Trump administration said it would temporarily bar entry to the US for most foreign nationals who had recently been to China. It also enacted the first mandatory quarantine in more than 50 years after evacuating Americans from Wuhan.
Ms Messonnier said the measures had been largely successful and would delay and limit the impact of a wider outbreak.
But new cases reported in areas outside of China this week have raised concerns that transmission of the virus will be more widespread globally. In Italy, health authorities have counted a sharp rise in coronavirus cases to 322, and 10 people have died.
“As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,” Ms Messonnier said.
She added: “As we’ve seen from recent countries with community spread, when it has hit those countries, it has moved quite rapidly. We want to make sure the American public is prepared.”
The CDC has been urging businesses, schools and families to prepare for a possible outbreak in the US. Ms Messonnier suggested on Tuesday that businesses could allow employees to work from home while schools consider using “internet-based teleschooling” or putting students in smaller groups. Hospitals may need to expand tele-health services and delay elective procedures to accommodate other patients, she added.
“Disruption to everyday life might be severe,” Ms Messonnier said.
Despite the CDC warning — the strongest from US health authorities about the coronavirus since the outbreak began — Larry Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser, offered a more optimistic assessment.
“We have contained this,” Mr Kudlow told CNBC on Tuesday. “I won’t say [it’s] airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight.” Donald Trump has also been touting the US’s ability to contain the virus’s spread, with the president saying on Monday that “the coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”, even as global markets were roiled by the disease’s spread.
The data for this map comes from a dashboard maintained by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science Engineering, which has combined data from the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It also incorporates data from the Chinese medical community website DXY, which aggregates live situation reports from the Chinese National Health Commission and local CCDC.
The Trump administration has sent Congress a request for $2.5bn in emergency funding to combat the coronavirus, touching off a debate among lawmakers over whether that would be enough in the event of a widespread outbreak.
On Capitol Hill, Alex Azar, US secretary of health and human services, told lawmakers that the US had a stockpile of about 30m masks, while experts have suggested that healthcare workers would need 300m masks. Some of the funding would be used to acquire personal protection equipment, including masks, he said.
The warning came after senators condemned the White House for being unprepared for a public health emergency on a large scale.
Chuck Schumer, the top-ranking Senate Democrat, said the Trump administration had shown “towering and dangerous incompetence” regarding the coronavirus, including eliminating the global health security team from the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security, and for not widely distributing diagnostic tests.
He criticised the administration for proposing a 16 per cent cut to the CDC’s budget less than a month ago, when the virus was already spreading.
“It’s like the Soviet apparatchiks overruling the nuclear scientists at Chernobyl to avoid embarrassment to the regime,” he said.
Under the White House’s plan, some funds would be appropriated from the budget devoted to fighting Ebola, even though that outbreak is still raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mr Schumer described it as “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.