By Marie Rosenthal, MS

As COVID-19 spreads across the United States—more than 35 states have reported at least one case—Americans want to know what they should do to protect themselves.

Nancy Messonnier, MD, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, spent some time with reporters today to talk about risk, so that people can better determine how they should respond.

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“This virus is capable of spreading easily and sustainably from person to person based on the available data,” she said. “The report of the World Health Organization mission to China describes the virus as being highly contagious, and there’s essentially no immunity against this virus in the population because it’s a new virus,” she said, adding that certain people are at higher risk for becoming very ill than others.

“Reports out of China that looked at more than 70,000 COVID-19 patients found that about 80% of illness was mild, and people recovered; 15% to 20% developed serious illness  . Let’s talk about who those people are. So far, it seems like it’s not of the 70,000 cases; only about 2% were in people younger than 19. This seems to be a disease that affects adults and most seriously older adults.”

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This is among people who live in a community that is seeing COVID-19. “Right now, much of the outbreak and all of the 19 deaths have occurred on the West Coast. “Nearly half of reported cases are in California and Washington. Eighteen of the deaths are in Washington. The remaining one is in California right now,” she explained.

“Risk can be looked at in two ways. There’s a risk of being exposed and getting sick from this virus, and there’s a risk of getting very sick or dying from illness with this virus,” she said. Most people get a mild illness, she reiterated.

However, as the virus spreads into communities, there is a chance that many Americans will encounter the illness and become sick. “Based on what we know about this virus, we do not expect most people to develop serious illness,” she said.

“Starting at age 60, there is an increasing risk of disease, and the risk increases with age,” she said.

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“The highest risk of serious illness and death is in people older than 80 years,” Dr. Messonnier explained, as well as among people with serious underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease or lung disease.

“We know that in South Korea, no one under the age of 30 has died, and in Japan, no one under the age of 50 has died. Data from these countries help us understand the potential risk here in the U.S. That’s why it’s so important for older adults and people with serious underlying health conditions to be prepared,” she said.

She made these recommendations for people at highest risk: 

  • Make sure you have supplies on hand, such as routine medications for blood pressure and diabetes and over-the-counter medicines and medical supplies to treat fever and other symptoms.
  • Have enough household items and groceries so that you will be prepared to stay home for a period of time.
  • Take everyday precautions like avoiding close contact with people who are sick, cleaning your hands often, and to the extent possible, avoid touching high-touch surfaces in public places.
  • Avoid crowds, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Know what is going on in your community.

“This weekend the federal government made a very specific recommendation in this context that travelers, particularly those with underlying health issues, defer all cruise ship travel worldwide. We also recommend that people at higher risk avoid nonessential travel, such as long plane trips,” she said.

“If you could end up in the role of helping to care for a family member or a friend who is at greater risk, we recommend you familiarize yourself with your loved one’s medications and help them get extra to have on hand. Help them also get food, medical supplies and other necessities so they can minimize trips to the store, and create a plan for if they do get sick. And if you get sick, you may need to identify backups, who can take care of them,” she said.
However, she said this was not a time to hoard food, surgical masks, medicines or other products that might be needed by those who are actually sick. (The FDA said it is also monitoring websites for people who are selling fraudulent “cures” for COVID-19.)

She said test kits have been delivered to 78 state and local public health laboratories in 50 states that now have the capacity to test up to 75,000 people. If anyone is at risk, they should contact their health care provider who will know who should be tested in their community.