Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Tuesday that COVID-19 is expected to spread in the United States at the community level — meaning that the agency is preparing for significant “disruption” to day-to-day life for people in communities in the U.S. In a press call with on Tuesday for the CDC , Nancy Messonnier, M.D., Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, discussed the latest updates on the virus and emphasized the importance of preparing on the national, community and personal level for the spread of the virus.
“The global novel coronavirus situation is rapidly evolving and expanding,” Messonnier said. “…The fact that this virus has caused illness including illness resulting in death and sustained person-to-person spread is concerning. These factors meet two of the criteria of a pandemic. As community spread is detected in more and more countries, the world moves closer towards meeting the third criteria: Worldwide spread of the new virus.”
Citing the 14 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States from individuals who had recently traveled to China (or been in close contact with people who have traveled there) and the 39 U.S. citizens infected globally, CDC officials say that it’s not so much a matter of “if” but “when” it will spread on the community level and how severe the cases might be.
As there is no vaccine currently to protect against the virus and no approved medications to treat it, Messonnier said the key for people to prepare themselves for the spread will be in Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs): “What these interventions look like at the community level will vary depending on local conditions. What is appropriate for one community seeing local transmission won’t necessarily be appropriate for a community where no local transmission has occurred. This parallel proactive approach of containment and mitigation will delay the emergence of community spread in the United States or simultaneously reduce its ultimate impact.”
However, she cited the org’s 2017 recommendations for preventing pandemic influenza as a solid place to start for you and your family.
Mind the standard personal preventative actions recommended every flu and cold season
“Stay home if you’re sick, cover your cough, wash your hands,” Messonnier said, citing the regularly recommended cold and flu season advice. “These NPIs are recommended during a pandemic regardless of the severity level of the respiratory illness.”
Consider the effective community NPIs & their consequences
On the community level, this is where the day-to-day “disruption” may come in, as the organization recommends ways to reduce “face-to-face contact in community settings” and limit exposure and measures that could lead to missed work, school — and, of course, wrangling for childcare, work coverage or loss of income from missed work.
“For schools, options include dividing students into smaller groups or, in a severe pandemic, closing schools and using Internet-based teleschool to continue education. For adults, businesses can replace in person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increased teleworking options on a larger scale. Communities and cities may need to modify, postpone, or cancel mass gatherings. For healthcare settings. This might include triaging patients differently, looking at how to increase telehealth services and delaying elective surgery,” Messonnier said. “Local communities will need to make decisions about what NPIs to implement and when, based on how severe transmission and disease is and what can be done locally. This will require flexibility and adaptations as disease progresses and new information becomes available. Some of these measures are better than none, but the maximum benefit occurs when the elements are layered upon each other.”
What can you do to help your family prepare?
Especially given the at-best fraught, at-worst impossible relationship with sick leave in the U.S., Messonnier noted that some of the more effective measures (closing school, staying home from work) can be disruptive and lead to “secondary consequences” that include missed work and losing income.
To calmly prepare for potential community spread, she says it’s best to be proactive and begin talking about the steps your individual community (school, work, health care, etc.) will be taking, which can include:
- Asking your children’s school about their plans for school dismissals or school closures
- Asking if there are plans for Teleschool
- Think about what you would do for childcare schools or daycare is closed
- Talk to your employer about teleworking options, if that’s feasible in your job
- Talk to your health care provider about telemedicine options
- Talking to your kids (without panic) about why you’re taking precautionary measures and staying prepared
“I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions. All of these questions can help you be better prepared for what might happen,” Messonnier 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. I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning 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 of our lives.”