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Virus spread in U.S. is not a question of ‘if but when,’ health expert says

When it comes to the wider, untraceable spread of novel coronavirus in the United States, it’s now “not so much a question of if, but when,” a top U.S. health official said Tuesday.

Nancy Messonnier, director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, suggested during a call with reporters that transmission of the illness is inevitable in the U.S. She urged Americans to think about how they would plan to take action, at a household level, if this virus disrupts communities in the U.S. in the weeks and months to come. That could include widespread closures of schools and businesses, and the cancellation of major events that could draw large crowds and spread the virus.

The virus has spread quickly outside of China, notably in Italy and Iran, where community transmission has taken hold. That means it is practically impossible to trace the illness to whoever introduced the virus to a particular community. This reality has prompted U.S. public health officials to shift their strategy to contain and mitigate the virus. That dual approach “will delay the emergence of community spread in the U.S.,” Messonnier said.

Messonnier has held regular briefings on the outbreak since January, but her tone on Tuesday was markedly more urgent than in previous calls.

As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at U.S. borders will be increasingly difficult, Messonnier said, adding that she wanted to set the American people’s expectation that “this might be bad.” The momentum and nature with which the virus is spreading renders the U.S. travel bans against some foreign nationals obsolete, some public health officials have warned.

A few weeks back, the U.S. suspended entry for foreign nationals who had recently traveled in China. But with outbreaks emerging outside of that nation, those bans appear ineffective, and many public health officials argued they were not at all helpful in containing the virus.

Earlier Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified before the Senate appropriations committee about the Trump administration’s proposed budget for health spending. He also urged Congress to heed a White House request for supplemental funding to tackle the emergency, by freeing up $2.5 billion to spend on “therapeutics, vaccines, personal protective equipment, state and local support, and surveillance” to combat further spread of this new coronavirus.

Some senators pushed back on the White House request as insufficient. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the amount “small” and the Trump administration’s proposal “unspecified,” given the dire nature of reports from China and those emerging from other nations.

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So far, roughly 80,000 people have been sickened by the virus globally, and nearly 3,000 people have died after being infected. The illness belongs to the same family of viruses as the common cold, SARS and MERS. In the U.S., 14 people have confirmed cases and have received treatment, including 12 people who recently traveled to China. Another 40 U.S. citizens who were recently on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship near Japan and three Americans who had been airlifted from Wuhan, China, also have been diagnosed with the disease.

“This is not a time to try to shortchange the American people,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., during his remarks to Azar. “If you lowball something like this, you end up paying for it later.”

On Tuesday, researchers at the University of Nebraska launched clinical trials to see if remdesivir, an antiviral drug first developed to combat Ebola, could be used as a vaccine, according to the National Institutes of Health. Currently, no vaccine exists to prevent the virus’ spread and no medication has been approved that has been specifically designed to treat people infected with COVID-19.