A day after the WHO warned the world to be in a "phase of preparedness" for a possible COVID-19 pandemic, another dire warning on the novel coronavirus: Officials from the CDC and NIH warned Tuesday that spread of the virus in the US appears inevitable. "Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in the United States. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, per the Washington Post. "Disruptions to everyday life may be severe, but people might want to start thinking about that now." There are currently 57 confirmed cases in the US, most of them Diamond Princess passengers, CNN reports, though some experts believe the true number could be in the hundreds.
The Post called those and other comments, made in briefings to lawmakers and reporters, "a significant change in official statements since the outbreak began in China in December." But within a few hours—and after the Dow fell as much as 900 points—the paper reported that top health officials were backing off the dire warnings. "We believe the immediate risk here in the United States remains low, and we’re working hard to keep that risk low," said one CDC director. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said officials simply want the US to have a large-scale response ready to go "just in case." As for what that would look like, the CDC outlined that in the day's earlier briefings, CNBC reports. Officials said schools would need to consider "internet-based teleschooling" while businesses should consider letting employees telecommute; communities would need to reconsider large gatherings or events; and hospitals may even need to postpone elective surgeries and other non-urgent healthcare needs. (Read more coronavirus stories.)