(CNN)Officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that it’s not a question of if, but when the novel coronavirus will spread in the United States — and communities are urged to prepare for the virus that has already killed thousands and sickened 10s of thousands more worldwide.
How could the possible spread of coronavirus change our daily lives? Schools, businesses, hospitals and first responders could all be impacted, according to the CDC.
“We expect we will see community spread in this country,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a press briefing Tuesday.
“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad.”
The CDC has been referring to guidance on how to deal with flu pandemics, in a document called “Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza United States 2017.” It’s the “blueprint” for community interventions, and the agency is adjusting its recommendations to the specific circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak, officials said.
The document draws from the findings of nearly 200 journal articles written between 1990 and 2016, and it includes a summary of lessons learned from the response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which killed hundreds of thousands globally.
“The trajectory of what we’re looking at over the weeks and months ahead is very uncertain, but many of the steps that we have taken over the past 15 years to prepare for pandemic influenza and our experience going through the 2009 H1N1 pandemic of influenza remind us of the kinds of steps that our health care system, our businesses, our communities and schools may need to take,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director, said during a press conference at the White House on Wednesday.
“It’s the perfect time for businesses, health care systems, universities and schools to look at their pandemic preparedness plans, dust them off and make sure that they’re ready.”
Widespread transmission of the coronavirus could impact schools, child care centers, colleges and group events, such as concerts, festivals, and sporting events, according to the CDC’s 2017 document.
For instance, the document notes that “social distancing measures” for schools, workplaces and gatherings “can reduce virus transmission by decreasing the frequency and duration of social contact among persons of all ages.”
In schools, that could involve dividing classes into smaller groups of students and rearranging desks so students are spaced at least 3 feet from each other in a classroom, according to the document. That is, if the school remains open.
CDC might recommend the use of coordinated school closures during severe pandemics. More than 100 schools closed in 2009 in response to the H1N1 flu pandemic.
Closing or canceling schools in response to public health concerns are decisions that districts typically have to grapple with and are already experienced in making.
“Even in my own state of Maine, schools have in recent weeks and months had to close for influenza. During the H1N1 crisis many years ago, schools were also closed then,” recalled Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and a member of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
For the novel coronavirus, “one of the questions that is scientifically out there that will govern or drive how school closures are calculated is to what extent children themselves carry or transmit this virus,” Shah said. “Scientifically we need to have a better understanding of to what extent children are carriers or transmitters of the virus — the point of that is, it’s premature right now based on the science to make uniform claims about what school closures may look like.”
Messonnier said on Tuesday that she talked to her family and told them, while they are not at risk right now, they should have a plan in case their lives are significantly impacted. She said she even called the children’s school district to find out what would happen if schools needed to close.
“The data over the last week, and the spread in other countries, has certainly raised our level of concern and raised our level of expectation” of community spread, she said.
The CDC still doesn’t know what that will look like, she added. Community spread could be reasonably mild or very severe.
The CDC has posted guidance on its website to help businesses and employers make decisions on work-from-home policies or flexible sick leave if there is significant spread of the coronavirus across the country.
Such guidance also includes how to respond if an employee gets sick.
The 2017 document noted that “social distancing meas