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A sign outside the Tokyo National Museum in Japan. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

We still don't know a lot about the coronavirus, and those unknowns make even the best contingency planning a lot harder.

The big picture: We don't know how widely the virus is spreading undetected, which makes it more important for leaders to map out worst-case scenarios. But experts say we're also not at a place where closing schools, requiring telecommuting or canceling public events are imminent or practical.

  • "There's a lot of panic and concern, but there's no indication that these more dramatic measures are necessary," said Allison Bartlett, an infectious disease physician at the University of Chicago.

The latest: President Trump has increased travel restrictions to Iran and authorized "do not travel" warnings for areas in Italy and South Korea — and said he's looking "very strongly" at closing the southern border with Mexico.

  • But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield announced the Washington state patient who died had no known link to travel or contact with anyone with the disease.
  • And now health officials are concerned about a long-term care facility in Kirkland, Washington, where more than 50 people have respiratory symptoms and are being tested for the virus.

What's happening: The dire scenarios took over the national conversation after the CDC's Nancy Messonnier told the public last week to ask school districts about remote learning, consider alternative child care, work from home and monitor scheduled gatherings. "These are things that people need to start thinking about now," she said.

  • There's no clear or defined threshold to trigger those kinds of responses.
  • But "the people who are making those decisions are going to be mindful of the fact that this [virus] can spread very quickly," said Jeff Shaman, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University.

School closings have already happened in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere — but they happened because of this year's virulent flu season, not the coronavirus.

  • The flu is infecting and killing more people, but the coronavirus has a higher preliminary mortality rate. (That mortality rate could be incorrect, though, because we don't know how many people are infected with the coronavirus but are not showing symptoms.)
  • Regardless, the last thing we want is two deadly viruses swamping the public at the same time, experts say.
  • On Saturday, Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told reporters that, like the flu, most of the deaths will be among elderly or people with underlying medical conditions — but that "every once in a while, you're going to see a one-off" like a young adult dying from the virus.

Yes, but: In China, people "have accepted and adhered to the starkest of containment measures — whether the suspension of public gatherings, the month-long 'stay-at-home' advisories or prohibitions on travel," experts wrote in a new World Health Organization report.

  • Those restrictions helped slow the spread, but they are tough to enforce in the U.S. for many reasons, including the lack of guaranteed paid sick leave.
  • That makes staying home — from work, school or events — not financially or technologically feasible for millions.

The bottom line: Society isn't about to shut down. But the flu and coronavirus should motivate people to be diligent stewards of health by covering coughs, washing hands thoroughly and disinfecting common objects — which is about all they can do right now.

Go deeper: Brace yourself for a coronavirus outbreak

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