In late February, health officials confirmed that the American public should “prepare” for an outbreak of coronavirus in the U.S.—a big change on how they’ve spoken about the virus, known as COVID-19, in the past.
“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country anymore, but a question of when this will happen,” Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at the time, per the New York Times.
Dr. Messonnier stressed that officials aren’t sure if the spread of novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, will be mild or severe, but she recommended that people prepare, just in case. “Disruptions to everyday life may be severe, but people might want to start thinking about that now,” she said.
According to the latest situation report from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 900 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. (This includes 46 passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. They returned to the U.S. under the watch of federal health officials.) There are more than 125,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, with more than 80,000 of them in China. Per the latest data, more than 4,600 people have died after contracting the virus.
Still, experts emphasize that you shouldn’t panic, especially because the risk of contracting the virus remains low for the average American who has not had close contact with travelers from countries with large outbreaks. But, if you would rather feel prepared, doctors say there are a few practical steps you can take in case a coronavirus outbreak hits your local community.
How could coronavirus potentially “disrupt” your life?
Dr. Messonnier said during her call with reporters that schools should consider dividing students into smaller groups or use internet-based teleschooling if there is a coronavirus outbreak in their area. “For adults, businesses can replace in-person meetings with video or telephone conferences and increase teleworking options,” she said, per CNBC.
Local communities and cities may also need to “modify, postpone, or cancel mass gatherings,” and hospitals may need to add more telehealth services and delay elective surgery. “Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools, and everyday people to begin preparing,” she said.
“We know that any infectious disease outbreak has these cascading impacts,” says Amesh A. Adalja M.D., infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There may be disruptions in your local community in terms of how local government responds to it, canceling events, and individual employer policies.”
How to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak
Of course, this all depends on if coronavirus makes its way to your community, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “We can hope for the best but we should prepare for something more serious,” he says. Here are a few simple ways to stay on top of things:
Know coronavirus symptoms.
The WHO says people “are presenting with a wide range of symptoms,” but signs of coronavirus are similar to symptoms of the flu. People infected with coronavirus may have a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever, and generally feel sick. It can also cause lower-respiratory tract infections like pneumonia or bronchitis.
If you notice any of these signs, talk to your doctor immediately to rule out a potential COVID-19 diagnosis. People who are immunocompromised and the elderly are most at risk of serious complications due to coronavirus, the CDC says.
While a flu shot cannot prevent coronavirus, “you still should get the flu vaccine,” Dr. Adalja says. “The less flu we have to deal with, the more resources we can put toward coronavirus.”
Keep things clean.
In general, coronavirus spreads from person-to-person via respiratory droplets (say, from coughing or sneezing). Dr. Adalja recommends practicing good hand hygiene, which means washing with soap and water after you’ve come into contact with common objects, like door handles. If you take public transportation, be sure to wash your hands afterward, and keep unwashed hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. (Unless you’re already sick, a face mask won’t do much in preventing infection.)
If you want to be especially stringent, you can disinfect commonly used areas in your house, like door knobs, kitchen countertops, cell phones, and toys, but Dr. Adalja says it’s not completely necessary.
Discuss possible schedule changes.
It’s a good idea to have a conversation with your family, close friends, managers, and anyone else you interact with in daily life about what you’d do if a coronavirus outbreak occurred near you, Dr. Schaffner says. “If the schools closed, who would watch the kids? Can you telework? These are important questions to ask,” he says.
Stock up on necessities—but no need to go overboard.
If you or another member of your family is on prescription medication, it’s not a bad idea to stock up with a two-week supply, Dr. Schaffner says. Ditto for keeping basic medications like acetaminophen handy, Dr. Adalja adds. Make sure you also have necessary household and hygiene supplies on hand, like laundry detergent, hand soap, toilet paper, and diapers if you have young children.
And, next time you’re making a grocery store run, maybe pick up some canned goods and frozen vegetables. “It’s not necessarily about the virus, but local government reactions. You may want to have nonperishable food in your house in case it’s hard to get to a grocery store or you don’t want to risk getting exposed,” Dr. Adala says. However, he stresses, “people shouldn’t hoard food.”
Stay in the know.
Overall, Dr. Schaffner recommends just keeping tabs on how coronavirus may be impacting your local area. “Up until now, there’s been a lot of, ‘Wow, but it’s way over there in China,’” he says. “Just think about what you’d do if coronavirus came to your community.”
Visit the website for your local health department to make sure you are getting accurate updates.
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