Federal health officials this week warned that community spread of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. is seemingly inevitable, with one Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official saying it’s no longer “a question of if, but when, and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
In the same vein, officials have maintained that the immediate threat to the public remains low. So how worried should you be? And what should you do in advance?
Dr. Henry Miller, a former official with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who currently serves as Senior Fellow in Health Studies at the Pacific Research Institute, told Fox News that it’s “wise to prepare” for an outbreak — but warned against overacting at this time.
“As [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] Director Anthony Fauci has said, to this point, containment —a process of travel advisories, screening, isolation, and tracking of contacts —has worked, but that's no guarantee that there will not be U.S. community outbreaks in which the source(s) is unknown,” Miller said to Fox News in an email.
“There is the possibility not only of local outbreaks but also that local public health officials or politicians will overreact,” he continued, citing San Francisco's mayor declaring a state of emergency over coronavirus — despite no known cases in the city — as a recent example.
But, he noted, “it’s wise to prepare.”
“That would consist of ensuring that in case you're advised not to travel unnecessarily, even locally, you should have on hand a couple of weeks of non-perishable food (including pet food) and critical medications,” he said. “And of course, frequent, vigorous hand-washing and avoiding touching hands to eyes, nose, and mouth. And if you've had contact with someone with actual or suspected Wuhan coronavirus and are experiencing symptoms, call your health care provider for instructions.” (You can read more on how to protect yourself from the virus here.)
When asked if the U.S. is prepared to deal with an outbreak of coronavirus, Miller was confident, saying officials with the CDC, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “are being measured and conscientious.”
In terms of outbreak response, Miller pointed to the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak as a potential blueprint for handling coronavirus. But there will be differences, he said.
For instance, “The Wuhan virus is more deadly in the elderly (because older people had some antibody protection from the H1N1 flu virus). It might have a higher case-fatality rate overall, but we don't know that, because we don't know the actual number of people infected,” he said, noting that “asymptomatic or mild cases have likely not sought medical attention and, thus, have not been counted.”
The CDC on Tuesday also said an outbreak in the U.S. could result in a “severe” disruption to everyday life. Though it’s not totally clear what this might entail, Miller said he doesn’t “expect complete lockdowns of geographical areas,” as has been the case in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and other parts of China.