Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Sunday that while he hopes it doesn’t come to it, the government could shut down certain sections of the country hit hard by the coronavirus.
Speaking during an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Fauci said that “anything is possible” when asked if measures like those currently being imposed in Italy could be enacted in the U.S. to help prevent the continued spread of the coronavirus.
“I don’t think it would be as draconian as nobody in or nobody out,” Fauci said. “But if we continue to get cases like this, particularly at the community level, there will be what we call 'mitigation,' where we have to essentially do social distancing, keep people out of crowded places, take a look at seriousness, do you really need to travel, and I think it’s particularly important among the most vulnerable.”
He added: “You know, you don’t want to alarm people, but given the spread we’ve seen, you know, anything’s possible. And that’s the reason why we’ve got to be prepared to take whatever action is appropriate to contain and mitigate the outbreak.”
Fauci’s comments shortly after Italian Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree restricting the movements of about a quarter of the country's population in a bid to limit contagions at the epicenter of Europe's outbreak.
“For Lombardy and for the other northern provinces that I have listed there will be a ban for everybody to move in and out of these territories and also within the same territory," Conte said. "Exceptions will be allowed only for proven professional needs, exceptional cases and health issues.”
Around the world, more and more countries were bracing for a big increase in virus cases. Western countries have been increasingly imitating China – where the virus first emerged late last year, and which has suffered the vast majority of infections — by imposing travel controls and shutting down public events.
Fauci also cautioned people most at risk of dying from the coronavirus or complications relating to it – the elderly and people with preexisting conditions – to keep their distance from places where they could contract the virus, and to avoid any unnecessary travel.
“If you are an individual that has an underlying condition, particularly an elderly person with an underlying condition, right now you should start to distance yourself from the risk: crowds, getting on a plane, on a long plane trip, and above all, don’t get on a cruise ship,” he said. “That is a health issue.”
In waters around the world, the virus outbreak has left the cruise ship industry largely in disarray.
The Grand Princess cruise ship, where 21 people have tested positive for the virus, was heading Sunday to Oakland, Calif., after idling off San Francisco for days. It is expected to arrive Monday. Americans on the ship will be transferred to facilities around the country for testing and isolation, officials have said, but it's not yet clear what will happen to passengers from other countries. The ship had a cluster of almost 20 infections during an earlier voyage, which led to one death.
Another cruise ship has been in quarantine on the Nile River in Egypt with 45 confirmed virus cases. Malaysia and Malta turned away two other ships with no confirmed cases amid virus fears.
While the global death toll has risen past 3,400, more people have now recovered from the virus than are sickened by it. As of Saturday, nearly 90,000 cases have been reported in Asia; more than 8,000 in Europe; 6,000 in the Mideast; about 450 in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and fewer than 50 cases reported so far in Africa.
While many scientists say the world is clearly in the grips of a pandemic — a serious global outbreak – the World Health Organization isn’t calling it that yet, saying the word might spook the world further.
The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which cause up to 5 million severe cases around the world and up to 650,000 deaths annually, according to the WHO.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging older adults and people with severe medical conditions to "stay home as much as possible" and avoid crowds.
Most people who get the virus have mild cases, though the elderly face greater risks. Among the many new cases in Europe on Saturday was a doctor in Slovenia who was in contact with more than 100 people in a nursing home after a ski trip to neighboring Italy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.