CDC prepares for possibility coronavirus becomes a pandemic and businesses, schools need to be closed

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Travelers wearing masks arrive on a direct flight from China, after a spokesman from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said a traveller from China had been the first person in the United States to be diagnosed with the Wuhan coronavirus, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Washington, January 23, 2020.

David Ryder | Reuters

U.S. health officials are preparing for the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has killed at least 2,249 people and sickened more than 76,700 worldwide, to become a pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

“We’re not seeing community spread here in the United States, yet, but it’s very possible, even likely, that it may eventually happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on a conference call. “Our goal continues to be to slowing the introduction of the virus into the U.S. This buys us more time to prepare communities for more cases and possibly sustained spread.”

The CDC is working with state and local health departments “to ready our public health workforce to respond to local cases and the possibility this outbreak could become a pandemic,” she said, adding that the U.S. may need to institute stringent quarantine measures such as those currently in place in China where schools are closed to contain the spread.

“The day may come where we may need to implement such measures in this country,” she said.

Messonnier said that 319 Americans were evacuated this week from the Diamond Princess ship, which was quarantined in the port of Yokohama near Japan after an outbreak emerged onboard earlier this month. Despite the quarantine, which kept passengers confined to their cabins, the virus infected more than 600 passengers and crew, including some Americans who are being treated in Japan, Messonnier said.

“There are several Americans with COVID-19 who are hospitalized in Japan and who are seriously ill,” she said.

Of the 319 Americans brought back from Japan, Messonnier said 18 of them tested positive for COVID-19. She said it’s possible that some of those patients did not test positive before boarding the evacuation flights in Japan, but that they were “already incubating the disease.”

Earlier in the day, World Health Organization officials said they were concerned with the virus outbreak in Iran, where local health officials have confirmed 18 new cases and 4 deaths in just two days.

While a majority of cases are in China — with just 15 confirmed in the U.S. — the CDC has been working with the health-care sector to prepare for the virus to “take a foothold in the U.S,” Messonnier told reporters Feb. 12.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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