Brace yourself for a coronavirus outbreak
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
Public-health officials’ warnings about the coronavirus are sounding increasingly urgent, with one top CDC official asking the public yesterday "to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad."
Reality check: Other administration officials, including President Trump himself, were more subdued in their assessments. But underneath those tonal differences, the reality of the coronavirus is the same: It spreads quickly and has already spread to many countries, making it likely to start spreading here, too.
Where it stands: There are now cases piling up across Asia and into the Middle East, where it’s also spreading locally, even from people who weren’t exposed in China. As the virus itself spreads and as American travelers can encounter it in more places, the risk of a pandemic rises.
- Financial markets are already braced for the worst; the S&P 500 fell by 3.4% yesterday as fears of the virus widened.
- So far, though, there are only about 50 confirmed cases of coronavirus inside the U.S., and most of those people were exposed to the virus abroad.
Yes, but: There may already be more American cases than we know about. The CDC’s diagnostic tests for the virus have malfunctioned, and only about a dozen state and local health agencies even have them.
- The CDC is working on a new one, but in the meantime, the U.S. has only tested some 426 people for the virus.
- “We still do not know when the CDC kit replacements will come out. … It doesn’t feel like a good place to be,” Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told the Wall Street Journal.
You do not need to start panicking about coronavirus, at least not yet.
- The best ways to avoid getting the coronavirus are the same things you’d do to avoid getting the flu: Wash your hands, and stay away from work, school or other crowded places if you’re sick.
- If a pandemic does begin in the U.S., some businesses may want to embrace telework, schools may ultimately need to cancel classes, and local governments may want to reschedule large events, the CDC’s Nancy Messonnier said.
- “I understand this situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe, but these are things that people need to start thinking about now,” she said.
What’s next: The White House is asking Congress for $2.5 billion to combat the virus, though even some Republican senators were unhappy with a briefing yesterday about the federal response, per the Washington Post.
- The National Institutes of Health is working on a vaccine. That will still take a year or more, “even at rocket speed,” the NIH’s Anthony Fauci said yesterday — but the coronavirus could stick around next flu season, too.
- Hospitals rarely keep on hand the large quantities of protective gear they’d need to deal with a pandemic. Obtaining those supplies will be another challenge.
Be smart: Public-health experts told me in the early days of the Chinese outbreak that the smart thing to do was to prepare for the worst, and now the CDC is sounding that alarm, as well.
- There’s not much you yourself can or should do right now — but some degree of outbreak has always been pretty likely and keeps looking more likely.