US health authorities on Friday said they are ready to institute “mitigation” measures to minimize the harm caused by transmission of the novel coronavirus even as they significantly expanded efforts to contain the outbreak from becoming widespread in the country.
In a telephone briefing with reporters, Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the US would begin to test individuals for the coronavirus if they have been identified by local health authorities as having flu-like symptoms.
The heightened measures – a major expansion of Washington’s effort to contain the outbreak – will see the CDC work with public health labs in Los Angeles and San Francisco in California; Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City. More sites are planned, she said.
Messonier, the director of the CDC’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, also addressed a rising debate among health officials and epidemiologists on whether to pivot from “containment” of the outbreak – through measures such as contact tracing and isolating those who come into contact with infected people – to mitigation strategies.
Those advocating for mitigation say that the latest data prove the virus has a high transmissibility that almost certainly dooms containment efforts. In a scenario where the virus reaches pandemic levels, a policy of mitigation would mean those with mild symptoms would be asked to seek outpatient medical treatment and rest at home.
Only those with acute symptoms would be hospitalized, while a policy of “social distancing” that would include school and workplace closures would also be instituted.
Messonnier stressed that the two strategies were not mutually exclusive. While the possibility of widespread transmission of the coronavirus in the US would trigger a “change in our response strategy”, Messonnier said, mitigation and containment measures could be employed at the same time.
“There are times when those components merge together across the United States, potentially at different locations in the United States,” she said.
For now, she said, the CDC remained focused on keeping the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US – currently at 15 – as low as possible.
Messonnier said that mitigation would entail a reduction in the current practice in the US and elsewhere of tracing and isolating every person who comes into contact with infected people.
Instead, efforts to disrupt the virus would happen at the community level through “social distancing” measures that would include telecommuting, teleschooling and telemedicine.
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