- Local residents shop at a supermarket in Seoul, South Korea, on February 24.
- Wang Jingqiang/Xinhua/Getty Images
Americans got a dire warning from health officials on Tuesday: Prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Tuesday. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”
Since then, the Centers for Disease Control have reported several US cases in which patients got the virus unknown sources – they did not travel to China or knowingly interact with anyone who was infected. These instances of community spread suggest the virus is now spreading in the US. The first coronavirus death on US soil was reported on Saturday in Washington state.
Other nations are already facing more severe outbreaks. The virus has infected more than 3,000 people in South Korea and hundreds in Italy, Japan, and Iran.
Nearly 86,000 people have been infected and more than 2,900 people have died in mainland China.
At least 50 million people have been quarantined in China for more than a month, and other nations are initiating lockdowns as the outbreak grows.
The World Health Organization has thus far hesitated to call the virus a pandemic, but some health experts have said it has already reached that status. Either way, Bruce Aylward, a public-health expert with the WHO, said the world is “simply not ready” to contain the outbreak.
Here’s what you can do to prepare.
Keep a two-week supply of food and water.
- People wear face masks at a supermarket in Singapore on February 9.
- Ore Huiying/Getty Images
The US Department of Homeland Security recommends storing up enough food and water for two weeks before a pandemic strikes.
Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland, recently advised people in a blog post to purchase food items that won’t go bad, such as dried fruit and nuts, canned fish and vegetables, beans, coffee, cereal, and pasta.
When fresh food starts to get scarce, he added, it could be time to buy perishable items like bread, milk, eggs, and yogurt – but only as a last-minute precaution.
Stock up on over-the-counter medication, toilet paper, laundry detergent, and pet food.
- A man loads his car after being given 10 minutes to shop at a supermarket in Milan on February 23, 2020.
- Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images
In his blog post, Mackay advised purchasing a few extra items each time you make a trip to the store.
“Don’t buy things you won’t eat later, don’t hoard, and don’t buy more than you’ll need for a two-week period,” Mackay wrote. “We’re not talking zombie apocalypse and we very probably won’t see power or water interruptions either.”
Order medications ahead of time. You’ll want a month’s supply.
Marguerite Neill, an infectious-disease expert at Brown University, told the New York Times that people should have at least a 30-day supply of their medications.
A month’s supply of medicine is vital for anyone under quarantine. Passengers quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, for instance, reported running low on prescription drugs.
Even in a non-emergency scenario, pharmacists should get about a week’s notice to refill a prescription.
Since many pharmaceutical drugs are manufactured in China, the US Food and Drug Administration is monitoring for potential drug shortages. The agency identified the first drug shortage related to the coronavirus on Friday, though it didn’t specify the medication.
Drug shortages could become even more pronounced during a pandemic, which could cut off pharmaceutical supply chains in various parts of the world.
Have copies of your medical records handy.
- Hero Images/Getty Images
The Department of Homeland Security advises US citizens to prepare copies and electronic versions of their health records.
A recent study from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that the virus most seriously affects older people with preexisting health problems.
Coronavirus patients with heart disease, for instance, had around a 10% mortality rate, while those with diabetes had around a 7% mortality rate.
Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, making sure to scrub for at least 20 seconds.
- Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Coronaviruses can spread between people through respiratory droplets such as saliva and mucus, so good hygiene is critical to prevent transmission.
Soap and water are the best ways to protect yourself from germs, but the next-best option is an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60% to 95% alcohol. The CDC also recommends that people refrain from touching their eyes, nose, or mouth as much as possible.
If you develop respiratory symptoms, the CDC advises you to stay home so you don’t infect others. Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you have to cough or sneeze could also prevent others from getting sick.
Avoid traveling to the following coronavirus hotspots: China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran.
US citizens have been advised to avoid all nonessential travel to China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran. The CDC is asking any citizens returning from five countries – China, South Korea, Italy, Japan, or Iran – who develop a fever, cough, or shortness of breath to seek medical help and self-isolate.
Foreign nationals who’ve been in China within the prior 14 days are currently not allowed to enter the US.
Continue healthy habits like exercising, drinking lots of water, and getting plenty of sleep.
- Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
The Department of Homeland Security recommends being physically active, getting lots of rest, managing stress, drinking fluids, and eating nutritious food as a way to strengthen your immune system.
While there is no cure for COVID-19, a healthy immune system can improve your body’s ability to fight off infection.
Get the flu shot if you haven’t already. It won’t protect you from the coronavirus, but it will reduce the chances that you require medical treatment in hospitals that are treating coronavirus patients.
- Getty / David Greedy
COVID-19 has never been seen before in humans, so a flu shot won’t reduce your risk of getting infected.
It could, however, reduce your risk of getting influenza, which has some of the same symptoms as COVID-19, such as a fever, cough, and sore throat. Since the CDC is already lagging behind on testing coronavirus patients, a reduction in flu patients could reduce further strain on hospitals.
Richard Martinello, an associate professor of infectious disease at the Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider he has already seen patients with flu symptoms who are unnecessarily concerned that they may be infected with the coronavirus.
“We have to dissuade them that, unless they have a travel history that would be concerning or other contacts with individuals that would be concerning, there’s not even a reason to think about testing them,” he said.
Stay at least 6 feet away from people who display symptoms such as a dry cough or sneezing.
- Moses/Wikimedia Commons
On Tuesday, Messonier said that US citizens may eventually have to practice “social distancing measures,” like working from home or staying away from school.
Eventually, citizens may be asked to avoid public gatherings like concerts or sporting events.
That’s already a requirement in some nations outside China: Japan has closed all elementary, junior high, and high schools until early April. Iran has closed all universities for one week and banned public gatherings like weddings, concerts, and sports games through March. Italy has also banned public events in 11 towns.
Don’t wear a face mask unless instructed to by a health authority.
- REUTERS/Yen Duong
The CDC does not recommend face masks for the general public. For healthy people, hand-washing and avoiding close contact with sick patients is a better way to prevent infection.
“Wearing masks, except in the situation of a healthcare provider, has never been shown to be a very effective way to protect yourself from infectious diseases,” Eric Toner, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Business Insider.
Stocking up on face masks can also reduce the supply for medical workers that need them.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the US needed 300 million N95 masks – which filter out most airborne particles from the surrounding air – to protect healthcare workers during an outbreak. At present, it only has 30 million, he said.
At least 3,000 healthcare workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in China.