How to Prepare for a Possible Coronavirus Pandemic

CDC says to expect a potentially ‘severe’ disruption to everyday life

Warning sign with text reading “Novel Coronavirus Alert”, referring to quarantine and screening procedures.
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TThe person leading the U.S. response to the coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Nancy Messonnier at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is preparing herself and her family for a possible pandemic that could cause “severe” disruption to everyday life as businesses curtail activity, schools possibly close, and social gatherings are discouraged.

“I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning,” Messonnier said today in a conference call with reporters. “And I told my children that while I didn’t think that they were at risk right now, we as a family need to be preparing for significant disruption to our lives.”

Messonnier, who directs the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, sounded the most concerning tone yet that COVID-19, as the disease is called, will likely become a pandemic. “The fact that this virus has caused illness and death, along with sustained person-to-person spread is concerning,” she said. It meets two of the criteria for a pandemic. Meanwhile, she said, “the world moves closer to meeting the third criteria: worldwide spread of the new virus.”

“We really want to prepare the American public for the possibility that their lives will be disrupted because of this pandemic.”

That would seem to be already the case. Community spreading — cases that appear without a known source of exposure — are now occurring in Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.

“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” Messonnier said. It’s no longer a question of if, she says, but when and how many people will become severely ill.

What you can do

Messonnier stressed that businesses, schools, local governments, and the public at large need to start preparing for preventive measures they could employ in a pandemic.

  • Personal measures could include voluntary home quarantine of anyone exposed to someone else known to be infected with the virus. “CDC might recommend use of face masks by ill persons when crowded community settings cannot be avoided,” the agency states in its pandemic preparedness documents.
  • Community measures would aim to reduce face-to-face contact in community settings. That could mean dividing school kids into smaller groups or closing schools, replacing in-person business meetings with teleconferences. Communities and cities may need to modify or postpone mass gatherings. Hospitals could increase telehealth services and delay elective surgeries.
  • Environmental measures would call on people to consistently clean frequently touched surfaces and objects in homes, schools, workplaces, and social gatherings.

“The maximum benefits occur when the elements are layered upon each other,” Messonnier says. Local communities would decide when and how to implement these measures, she said, and they could cost some people income. In all, it “will be disruptive to peoples’ day-to-day lives, and we really want to prepare the American public for the possibility that their lives will be disrupted because of this pandemic,” she said.

I understand this whole 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 advises parents to ask schools about their plans for dismissals or closures and ask if there are plans for internet-based schooling.

“I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions,” she said. “You should think about what you would do for childcare or daycare should schools close. Is teleworking an option for you? Does your health care provider offer a telemedicine option? All of these questions can help you be better prepared for what might happen.”

Health officials say everyone should already be taking basic precautions commonly advised to avoid catching colds, the flu and other viral diseases: Stay home when you’re sick, cough and sneeze into your elbow, and wash hands frequently and correctly (20 seconds with scrubbing with soap and water).

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security suggests taking these steps in advance of a pandemic:

  • Store two weeks’ worth of food and water.
  • Stock up on or otherwise ensure a continuous supply of necessary prescription and regular medications.
  • Get printed or electronic copies of health records in case they’re needed.
  • Discuss with family how you’ll handle care in the home if someone catches the virus.

The situation now

As of February 25, COVID-19 had spread to 33 countries and killed 2,700 people, including 34 outside China [daily updates are here]. “What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world,” said World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

There have been 14 confirmed cases in the United States as of February 25, including 12 people who had traveled to locations where there are outbreaks of the disease, and two who contracted it here by close contact with one of them.

There are also 40 Americans who contracted the disease aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and three others who were repatriated to the U.S. on government evacuation flights from infected areas.

Some experts have been saying for weeks that the disease already had reached, or would soon reach, pandemic proportions.

The WHO would be the agency expected to declare a global pandemic. But on February 24, Tedros downplayed the need to invoke the term.

“WHO has already declared a public health emergency of international concern — our highest level of alarm,” Tedros said. “For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death. Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”

The coronavirus outbreak is rapidly evolving. To stay informed, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as your local health department for updates. If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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