5 Things We Learned About the Coronavirus Outbreak on Tuesday

Top U.S. health officials described a range of measures the government could take if the outbreak of coronavirus that began in China spreads widely in the U.S., outlining emergency plans that could result in significant disruptions to daily life for some.

In the most drastic case, that could include school closings, cancellations of sporting events, concerts and business meetings. Similar measures have been taken by other countries facing outbreaks as the virus has begun to pop up in meaningful numbers outside China.

While the U.S. has seen a small number of cases and hopes to limit the spread, health officials are preparing as if there will be a pandemic, Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

“We expect we will see community spread in this country,” Messonnier said, referring to person-to-person transmission of the virus. “It is not a matter of if, but a question of when, this will exactly happen.”

Exactly what measures health authorities put into place, and how broadly they’re implemented, would depend on how wide transmission is, Principal Deputy Director of CDC Anne Schuchat said at a separate press conference later Tuesday. She called a global pandemic likely, though said the actions the U.S. takes at home will depend on the severity.

“The images we’ve been seeing from China, from Hubei province, are quite different from what we’d expect in a U.S. context,” Schuchat said. In China, cities have been locked down and houses searched door to door, with people forcibly quarantined. “Dr. Messonnier’s comments really to were to frame what might happen in the future. It’s very important to say that our efforts at containment have worked.”

New clusters of cases in Italy, Iran, South Korea and countries outside China appear to have confirmed health officials’ predictions that efforts to contain the virus in China would slow the infection’s spread, not stop it. And sustained outbreaks in added countries will make it more challenging to seal off the U.S. from the disease.

The CDC is the primary federal agency responsible for tracking and responding to outbreaks of disease. While officials there have warned for weeks that the virus was likely to spread to the U.S., Tuesday’s morning’s call was a notable escalation in describing what that would mean.

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