Coronavirus Outbreak Will Get Worse: Top US Health Official

March 11, 2020 Updated: March 11, 2020

The outbreak of the new coronavirus in the United States will get worse, a top public health official told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“How much worse we’ll get will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside, and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, during a House oversight hearing in Washington.

“Bottom line, it’s going to get worse,” he said.

Fauci referenced outbreaks in the past, saying his prediction that the situation will get worse was based on how the new virus is spreading in an uncontained manner in some areas.

Large clusters have driven the number of cases up in New York just outside New York City, Washington state just outside Seattle, and Silicon Valley in California.

He said that the new virus is “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” which has a mortality rate of around 0.1. percent. U.S. officials previously pegged the mortality rate between 0.1 and 1 percent, though some countries have reported higher rates. The worldwide rate with confirmed cases only is 3 percent, Fauci said. Counting asymptomatic and other mild, unconfirmed cases, the rate is likely around 1 percent, he added.

Asked by a lawmaker if he could give a trajectory for how many Americans could get infected by the new virus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, Fauci said he could not.

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Kirkland Fire and Rescue ambulance workers walk back to a vehicle after a patient was loaded into an ambulance at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle on March 10, 2020. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

“I can’t give you a realistic number until we put in the factor of how we respond. If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up and be involved in many, many millions,” he said.

“If we talk to contain, we could flatten it. So there’s no number answer to your question until we act upon it.”

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told reporters on Monday that many people in the country will be exposed to the new virus.

“It’s fair to say, as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will, at some point in time—either this year or next—be exposed to the virus,” she said.

“And there’s a good chance many will become sick,” she added.

Federal officials have repeatedly referenced data from a joint World Health Organization-China study that found about 80 percent of confirmed cases experience mild or moderate symptoms, including pneumonia. Fauci explained the finding on Wednesday as 80 percent recovering “without substantial intervention.”

The other 20 percent of patients in China required hospitalization, with some needing intensive care and some requiring assistance breathing, according to the study.

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A notice hangs near the cash register at a bagel shop in New Rochelle, N.Y., on March 11, 2020. (Julie Jacobson/AP Photo)

The majority of deaths from COVID-19 take place among older people, officials have stressed. Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC, told lawmakers that most deaths in the United States have been among those aged 70 or older, and the average age of death in Italy, which has the second highest number of deaths in the world, is over 80.

Federal officials in recent days have asked older Americans to be cautious and take preventative measures, including avoiding crowds and not taking non-essential trips.

COVID-19 has symptoms similar to the flu, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. There’s no vaccine or proven treatment, though many patients have recovered.

Ways to prevent catching the virus include avoiding sick people, frequently washing hands, and not touching one’s face with unwashed hands.

People who become ill are being asked to stay home from work and call their doctor or healthcare provider. Depending on the severity of the symptoms and the person’s history of contacts and travel, they might be asked to isolate themselves at home or travel to a hospital.

As of Wednesday morning, more than 990 cases of COVID-19, and 31 deaths from the disease, were reported the CDC, according to Redfield.

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