Coronavirus Could Persist Into Next Year, But Impact Can Be Reduced, Says CDC Expert

National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier speaks during a press conference at the Department of Health and Human Services on the coordinated public health response to the 2019 coronavirus (2019-nCoV) as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield looks on Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington, DC.  (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

A top federal health official said Monday that the evolving coronavirus outbreak could persist in the United States into next year, while stressing that public health interventions could still reduce the spread of the virus and cases of illness and death.

“As the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the U.S. will at some point, either this year or next, get exposed to this virus,” Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on a call with reporters. “And there’s a good chance many will become sick.”

Messonnier noted, however, that officials do not expect most people to suffer severe cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. She pointed to data from China, where the outbreak began and thousands of cases have been reviewed, that showed that some 80% of cases were mild and only a few percent were critical.

The most common symptoms of Covid-19 include fever and cough. In more serious cases, it can cause pneumonia. There have been more than 500 confirmed cases in the United States, and more than 20 deaths.

Messonnier, the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, used the press briefing Monday to urge Americans who face higher risks of developing more severe disease, including seniors and people with underlying health conditions, to take precautions and prepare. Such steps include avoiding crowds and contact with people who are sick, and frequent hand washing.

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She also said that high-risk Americans should stock up on their medications and groceries, and that family members of those high-risk people should create a plan should they get sick and they can no longer help their relatives.

“You may need to identify backups,” Messonnier said.

She added: “I understand these recommendations may not be popular and that they may be difficult for some people.”

Messonnier’s suggestion that the virus could last into next year fits with the predictions of some experts that the virus will circulate for a long time, given how difficult contagious respiratory illnesses are to halt. Some experts have said they see the virus becoming endemic, that is, spreading permanently in the human population like some viruses that cause colds and the flu.

The concern with the novel coronavirus, however, is that no one had any existing immunity to it, so initial exposure is more likely to lead to more severe illnesses for some patients. The most vulnerable include seniors, those whose immune systems are suppressed, and those who are already dealing with other health conditions.

Messonnier noted that most communities in the United States are not experiencing community spread of the virus and said that people need to make decisions based on where they live and their own needs. She also advised that people who are not at high risk for severe illness, particularly those not living in places like communities in Washington state and California where the virus is known to be spreading, to act prudently. Masks, for example, should really be saved for health care workers.

“This is a time for people to prepare for what they might need to do, but not a time for people to clear out the shelves,” she said when asked about people buying household and cleaning supplies in bulk.

If people think they have been exposed to the virus, they should stay at home and alert a health provider if they become ill, particularly if they are in a high-risk group, Messonnier said.

She said that her parents, who are in their 80s, do not live in an area where the disease is known to be actively spreading, “but I’ve asked them to stick close to home.”

During the briefing, Messonnier explained that more public health response efforts, which are largely led by state and local officials, will increasingly move from containment to mitigation, but she described that transition not like an on-off switch but like a dimmer. Containment efforts, which included isolating individual cases and following their contacts to see if they develop disease, could continue even as officials implemented the broader mitigation efforts that are designed to address wider community spread.

“We can really mitigate the impact of this disease,” she said.

Wrangling the spread of the virus will require individuals to act as well, she said. People need to listen to health authorities, and protect themselves, their families, and their communities. Reducing the spread of the disease will also reduce the burden the health care system could face.

“There are personal responsibilities that we’re asking everyone in the United States to take,” she said.

This story was originally published by STAT, an online publication of Boston Globe Media that covers health, medicine, and scientific discovery.