NEW YORK - The disease caused by the novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, likely will continue to spread person-to-person worldwide, including in the United States, and get worse before it gets better, according to federal health officials. And although the World Health Organization has stopped short of calling this outbreak a global pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that current trends point that way. (The CDC is a major agency within the U.S. Department of Health Human Services.)
"Widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time," the CDC said in an update on the outbreak. "Schools, childcare centers, workplaces, and other places for mass gatherings may experience more absenteeism. Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths."
Health authorities in the U.S. have diagnosed COVID-19 in travelers and in some people who have close contact with people who have returned from China's Wuhan province, which is the epicenter of the outbreak. At this time, the novel coronavirus is not spreading in U.S. communities. However, health officials are preparing for the possibility that the virus could spread more widely.
Through Feb. 24, the CDC has confirmed 14 cases of COVID-19 detected and tested in the U.S. since Jan. 21. (This tally does not include people who returned to the U.S. via State Department-chartered flights.) Another three confirmed cases are among people who returned to the U.S. from Wuhan and 36 cases among travelers who came back to the U.S. aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
"The risk from these outbreaks depends on characteristics of the virus, including how well it spreads between people, the severity of resulting illness, and the medical or other measures available to control the impact of the virus (for example, vaccine or treatment medications)," the CDC said. "The fact that this disease has caused illness, including illness resulting in death, and sustained person-to-person spread is concerning."
This is why the CDC considers the public health threat from COVID-19 in the United States to be high but your risk as an individual will vary, depending on exposure.
"However, it’s important to note that current global circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic," the CDC said. "In that case, the risk assessment would be different."
The CDC is warning that as the virus spreads and more people become sick, the public health systems in the U.S. may become "overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths."
"Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and transportation industry may also be affected," the CDC said. "Health care providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed."
The CDC, other federal agencies, and state and local health departments are, essentially, on alert regarding the potential seriousness of COVID-19. These are some of the steps the feds have taken to reduce the spread of the virus, as outlined by the CDC:
1. The U.S. government suspended entry of foreign nationals who have been in China within the past 14 days.
2. U.S. citizens, residents, and their immediate family members who have been in Hubei province and other parts of mainland China are allowed to enter the U.S. but can be monitored and possibly quarantined for up to two weeks.
3. The CDC issued these travel guidance alerts:
- China — Level 3, Avoid Nonessential Travel
- South Korea — Level 3, Avoid Nonessential Travel
- Japan — Level 2, Practice Enhanced Precautions
- Iran — Level 2, Practice Enhanced Precautions
- Italy — Level 2, Practice Enhanced Precautions
- Hong Kong — Level 1, Practice Usual Precautions
- Reconsider taking a cruise ship voyage into or within Asia
4. The U.S. State Department also urges U.S. residents to avoid all travel to China for now.
5. This is an updated global map showing all countries affected by COVID-19.