Feb. 28 (UPI) -- World Health Organization officials on Friday raised their risk assessment for spread and impact of COVID-19 from "high" to "very high," but still declined to declare the outbreak a pandemic amid its impact on an increasing number of nations.
According to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the agency made the change based on the fact that relatively new epidemics in Italy and Iran have spread to other countries.
In all, 24 confirmed cases of the virus in 14 countries have been traced to Italy, while 97 cases in 11 countries have been linked with Iran.
"What we are seeing is linked epidemics of COVID-19 in several countries," Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing Friday in Geneva. "We don't see evidence yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities. As long as that is the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus."
Mike Ryan, head of the WHO's emergencies program, noted that a "pandemic is a unique situation," but acknowledged that if the virus spreading at this rate was a form of influenza, his agency "would have called it pandemic by now." However, he said, responses in China indicate that containment is possible.
"The data does not support (COVID-19 as a pandemic) as yet," he explained.
Ryan said the WHO has faced challenges in getting an expert team on the ground in Iran, due to a lack of flights into and out of the country. United Arab Emirates has been assisting the agency in getting staff and supplies into the country, he added.
Iran is one of many countries dealing with a shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as face masks and respirators, Ryan noted. The WHO is currently not recommending that the general public use face masks, citing the need to ensure that healthcare workers have adequate supplies.
Ghebreyesus said 46 countries have confirmed cases of the virus, but eight of them hadn't reported new cases in more than two weeks. There have been fewer than 5,000 cases globally, he added.
"But make no mistake: I'm not saying this is not serious," he continued.
In addition, Ghebreyesus said the key to containing the outbreak is to "break the chain of transmission" and noted that "containment starts with" the general population.
He recommended 10 steps for people to protect themselves:
- Regular hand-washing with soap and water and/or alcohol-based hand sanitizers;
- Limiting touching of the face after contact with potentially contaminated surfaces or infected persons;
- Cleaning surfaces with disinfectants;
- Getting educated on COVID-19, with information from reliable sources such as state and national health agencies;
- Avoiding travel with symptoms;
- Coughing or sneezing "into your sleeve;"
- Taking extra precautions -- such as avoiding crowded areas -- for those over 60 years of age or with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease;
- Staying home "if you feel unwell" and calling a healthcare professional;
- Self-isolating from friends and family "if you have symptoms" of COVID-19.
"Your risk depends on where you live, your age and your general health," Ghebreyesus said.
Meanwhile, several countries have implemented quarantine measures, with varying degrees of success.
Russian officials on Friday said that they had deported 88 foreign nationals for violating quarantine measures imposed on them as a precaution against COVID-19, according to the RIA news agency. The country has quarantined hundreds of people and police there have reportedly raided the homes and hotel rooms of suspected carriers of the virus.
The government has also used facial recognition technology to enforce quarantines.
Also on Friday, officials in Mexico confirmed the country's first two cases of COVID-19 -- in two men, one of whom had been to Italy recently. Neither are seriously ill, deputy health minister Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez told reporters, and both were placed in isolation.
One of the cases in the capital Mexico City, while the other is in Sinaloa state.