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CDC warns Americans to prepare for COVID-19 pandemic

By
Brian Dunleavy
A Chinese woman wears a protective face mask at a shopping center due to the threat of the spreading deadly coronavirus in Beijing. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A Chinese woman wears a protective face mask at a shopping center due to the threat of the spreading deadly coronavirus in Beijing. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday warned Americans to prepare for a coronavirus pandemic.

Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a press briefing that the "rapidly evolving and expanding" COVID-19 outbreak has now seen "community spread" in multiple countries, as well as cases in several regions without a known exposure to where the disease originated, Wuhan, China.

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"These factors meet two of the three criteria for a pandemic," Messonnier said. "The world appears to be moving closer to the third criteria -- worldwide spread."

The CDC and other federal agencies continue to take steps to slow the introduction of the virus into the United States to give officials time to prepare, she said. But as more countries report community spread of the disease, containment at U.S. borders becomes more difficult.

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On Monday, the World Health Organization declined to declare the outbreak a pandemic, even as case clusters emerged in Iran, Italy and elsewhere. On Tuesday, the Spanish resort of Tenerife placed a hotel on lockdown after hundreds of guests were exposed to an Italian doctor who tested positive for the virus after staying there.

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To date, there have been 57 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among U.S. citizens. Of these, 40 were among passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Three cases involved Americans "repatriated" from Wuhan by the State Department.

Messonnier said the CDC is using its flu pandemic plan as guidance for what a possible COVID-19 response might look like. Broadly, should the plan need to be enacted, it might entail widespread quarantines, school closures -- with transitioning of classroom work online -- and other measures.

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Since the flu plan was drafted in 2017, the CDC has conducted two exercises to rehearse its implementation. There has also been at least one government-wide pandemic preparation exercise, Messionnier said.

"These are things we need to start thinking about now," she said. "We need to be preparing for significant disruptions of our lives. People are concerned about the situation. Rightfully so. But we are putting our concerns to work preparing."

CDC officials urged businesses, health-care facilities and even schools to plan now for ways to limit the impact of COVID-19 if or when it spreads in local communities.

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According to Messonnier, businesses should consider replacing in-person meetings with telework, and schools should look to limit face-to-face contact, by dividing students into smaller groups, through closures or by implementing online coursework.

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Hospitals may also want to begin triaging patients who do not need urgent care and recommend patients delay elective surgery. WHO officials Tuesday praised Chinese officials for taking similar measures during the early stages of the outbreak.

Earlier Tuesday, on Capitol Hill, officials with the CDC and the National Institutes of Health met with senators behind closed doors, and lawmakers from both parties expressed concern about how well the Trump administration is prepared to respond to COVID-19, should it become a global pandemic.

Specifically, some questioned whether the administration has been devoting sufficient resources to preparation, highlighting examples of poor inter-agency communication, as well as a lack of dialog between the CDC, NIH and Congress.

The Trump administration has requested Congressional approval for $1.25 billion in emergency funding to fight COVID-19, on top of its plans to transfer approximately $500 million from a fund earmarked to fight Ebola. The administration has said more than $1 billion of the money will be allocated for vaccine development and the other funds would go toward stockpiling protective equipment like masks.

Health and Human Services officials said Tuesday that the government has already stockpiled more than 30 million facemasks.

"The supplemental is way below what's needed to protect the American people against an outbreak that seems to be, from my impression, virtually inevitable," U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters following the briefing. "This briefing, which was classified, should be made available to the American people because there would be an outcry, an uproar."

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U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement that the administration "is doing an excellent job of keeping Americans safe so far -- 10 days ago there were 14 infections and today there are 14 infections, plus the 39 Americans that were brought back from China and Japan, mostly from the cruise ship."

"As Chairman of the Senate health committee, I will continue to work to make sure that the Administration is implementing the preparedness and response framework for emerging public health threats that Congress has already provided," Alexander said.

The Senate Health Committee has scheduled a hearing for March 3 to learn more about what the administration has planned to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and what steps it has taken to coordinate the federal response, he added.

The CDC has faced challenges in ramping up health laboratories across the country to effectively and accurately test for COVID-19. Although the agency began distributing test kits for the virus two weeks ago, several of the kits reportedly yielded inconclusive results during pre-testing.

Messonnier said the agency is working on replacing the test kits and hopes to begin sending new ones out soon. Twelve labs across the country are equipped to test for COVID-19 and the CDC lab in Atlanta has capacity to test without backlogs.

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"I am frustrated we have had an issue with test," Messionnier said.

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