Minnesota might not have a confirmed case of a novel coronavirus infection today — or even in the days or weeks to come — but state health officials said Thursday that now is the time for people to prepare for the threat.
While state officials dust off pandemic plans, in case the new coronavirus that emerged in China becomes widespread here, they encouraged people to gradually stock up on supplies so they can stay home if sick, and to follow the tried-and-true advice of washing hands, covering coughs, and keeping their hands off their eyes, noses and mouths.
“We’re now entering a phase in which it does matter how households, neighborhoods, community groups and even businesses … prepare,” said Jan Malcolm, commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health.
Enhanced preparation comes even as the World Health Organization has reported signs that the outbreak has peaked in China, where the number of newly detected cases has been declining since Feb. 2. Monday was the first day when the number of new cases of COVID-19, the name for the sickness caused by this virus, was higher in other countries than in China.
The infectiousness and the global spread of the virus have nonetheless prompted Minnesota and U.S. health care leaders to recommend precautions, especially now that the U.S. has confirmed the first case in California in which an infected person had no recent travel history in China or contact with an infected person who had been in China.
“We must anticipate that one or more cases of COVID-19 will be confirmed in Minnesota in the weeks to come,” Malcolm said.
The latest estimates suggest that one person infected with the novel coronavirus will spread it on average to 2.2 others — suggesting that the virus is more infectious than most seasonal influenza strains but less infectious than other viruses such as measles.
One large study out of China estimated a fatality rate of 2% — but a rate of 8% for older people who appear more susceptible to the virus, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist.
“We do worry about the impact that it is going to have on our elderly and people who do have medical conditions,” said Lynfield, but she cautioned that the severity of the virus might be different in the U.S. given that the country has more time to prepare and a different level of health care resources.
“We need to see how things unfold,” she said.
Coronaviruses are somewhat common, and they are responsible for as many as one-third of colds in the U.S. The new version has raised concerns ever since it was identified in a fish market in Wuhan, China, in December, because nobody has immunity to protect themselves from it.
The U.S. government issued its first quarantine orders in 50 years, trying to prevent the virus from entering the country by evacuating Americans from Wuhan and then keeping them on U.S. military bases for two weeks until it was clear they were symptom-free. That included a Minneapolis man who returned home last week.
Other travelers from China were routed through 11 airports and ports where they could be screened and quarantined if they appeared to be sick or at risk of infection.
Minnesota could see similar measures if the virus emerges here, at least while health officials still have a primary goal of containing the spread of the outbreak. Individual schools could be temporarily closed, for example, if they had students who proved to be infected, said Kris Ehresmann, the state health department’s infectious disease director.
“We would evaluate all of those [strategies] in light of the particular situation,” she said. “Those may be tools that we use, but there also does come a point in an outbreak when the disease spread is such that those are no longer useful tools.”
Given the possibility of disruptions at work or school, Ehresmann asked Minnesotans to make backup plans if they had to work from home or go without child care for a short period of time. She also encouraged people to “gradually” build up their supplies of nonperishable foods, medications and anything else they would need if they were required because of an infection, or risk of infection, to be quarantined at home for two weeks.
One Minnesotan who suffered a flu-like illness and recently traveled to Southeast Asia is voluntarily staying at home until federal test results determine whether the illness is due to the coronavirus. Three prior tests of other suspect cases in Minnesota all turned up negative.
Ehresmann said there is no recommendation for the general public to wear facemasks. Concerns right now center on maintaining enough such personal protective equipment to keep health care workers infection-free and on the job during an outbreak.
People can take precautions, she added, by not touching their eyes, nose or mouth in a way that could cause infection.