As China struggles to contain a highly contagious coronavirus that’s killed nearly 1,400 people in that country, American health officials are preparing for a potential outbreak within the U.S. and warning that the illness may still be around well after flu season ends.
“This new virus represents an unprecedented public health threat,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a news briefing Friday afternoon.
The pneumonia-like illness, which this week was officially named COVID-19 — has sickened more than 60,000 people in central China’s Hubei province, where the virus was first discovered in late December, and continues to spread to other countries through human contact.
In the U.S., only 15 people have been diagnosed with the disease, with most of them having traveled to China. The only two U.S. patients who hadn’t recently been to China contracted the virus from their spouses.
CDC officials warn that the number of person-to-person transmissions within the U.S. is likely to grow.
“We don’t know a lot about this virus,” the agency’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, told CNN. “This virus is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year, and I think eventually the virus will find a foothold and we will get community-based transmission.”
There’s no evidence the COVID-19 is embedded in any part of this country, but Redfield believes it will “become a community virus at some point in time, this year or next year.”
Federal authorities have implemented a series of drastic measures to prevent or delay such an outbreak. Foreign nationals, for instance, have been banned from entering the U.S. if they’ve been to China in the previous 14 days. U.S. residents who have been to that country within the same period are required to stay under quarantine for two weeks.
As of Friday, more than 600 U.S. citizens and residents who were flown from the epicenter of the outbreak are quarantined across several U.S. military facilities.
“These people are going through very difficult circumstances right now,” said Messonnier, who leads the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Two of those evacuees were diagnosed with the coronavirus this week, including one person who had mistakenly been released from a hospital after an initial test came out negative.
Messonnier explained Friday there’s still a lot to learn about the disease, including how long it takes for the virus to become detectable.
“While we are doing the best we can, there are going to be bumps along the way,” she cautioned.
The respiratory illness is part of a large family of coronaviruses that typically cause fever, coughing, breathing difficulty and pneumonia.
CDC officials said people should avoid close contact with those who are sick, avoid touching their own faces and wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
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