What is community spread? Experts weigh in on how to prepare for coronavirus

·4 min read

Panic over the coronavirus has reached a fever pitch in the wake of officials confirming a ninth death in the U.S., all of which have occurred in Washington state. America is one of more than 70 countries where the virus — which causes fever and dry cough —has appeared. But with only 108 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, the country remains removed from the major outbreaks in China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.

Still, while the number of cases remains low on U.S. soil, reports that the virus may have gone undetected for several weeks in Seattle, Wash., are sparking concerns that a large number of cases in that region may be on the horizon. As of Monday, according to the latest data for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of the 100-plus cases here have been among travelers from abroad. But at least 11 cases were confirmed to be community transmitted cases — meaning they were spread on U.S. soil.

William Schaffner, PhD, an expert in the division of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, says it’s important to understand exactly what community spread is, and how it can be prevented. “What it means in this particular circumstance is that cases have been identified that have no evident link to an importation from abroad,” Schaffner tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The patient didn't come in from abroad and the patient has no known contact with anybody who came from China, for example. And that means they must've picked up the infection from someone else, which means that somehow that virus has been transmitted in their community.”

Rather than send Americans spiraling, Schaffner says this information should be used to plan for the future. “It is prudent for people in their own families and in their work environment to sit down and say, ‘What if the coronavirus was in our community and it was spreading?” he says. “What if we were asked to do social distancing, which just means, as much as possible, avoid face-to-face contact with others?”

Schaffner says to consider how this may impact daily life, including kids’ education, recreational activities and even religious services. “If you’re the kind of family that goes to religious services, maybe you’ll be reverent at home rather than joining the congregation for a few weeks,” says Schaffner. “Maybe you won't go to the bridge club to play bridge and sit opposite people for three hours.” While stocking food and water is likely not necessary at this point, he does recommend making sure anyone who takes daily medicine has a “few weeks supply” on hand.

For anyone who argues that it’s too soon to make these plans, Schaffner says the fact that they’re not required now is exactly the point. “If you sit down when there's no intensity about it, the family can discuss these sorts of things,” he says. “Now is the time to plan when you have some time and you can do it calmly and get input from the relevant people, whether in your family or in your work or other environments.”

In terms of actually protecting yourself from the virus, Schaffner – like the CDC — continues to recommend keeping your hands clean and using an alcohol-based sanitizer. He also suggests trying not to touch your face (advice on that here) and echoes other experts’ take on surgical masks, which is that they are not effective in the way they’re being used.

“Simple surgical masks, other than kind of psychological comfort, really provides little if any protection from acquiring an infection,” he says. “They're not designed for that, and they don't function in that way. If you'd have an illness and you come to healthcare and you were coughing, a mask will be put on you. That will prevent you from giving it to someone else. But having those go out in the community protecting me from getting it? That's not what they're designed for.”

Whether or not you continue to wear a mask, Schaffner hopes that planning advice will be taken seriously. “Thinking a little bit about this allows you to plan,” he says. “And then if it's suddenly apparent that virus is in your community, you're not going to run around like a chicken with his head cut off.”

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