The expanding number of coronavirus cases in California and Washington state spread through community contact have heightened concerns.
But experts warn the rising case counts in the U.S. do not necessarily reveal that the virus is spreading rapidly across the country. They also urged the public to stay calm and keep the virus in perspective.
“Stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself. Fear and panic are dangerous,” World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “It’s fine to be concerned and worried, but let’s calm down and do the right things.”
So far, testing for the virus in the U.S. has been very low, said Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch.
“Some of the numbers are changing because new things are happening, but a lot of the numbers are changing because we’re discovering things that have already happened,” Lipsitch said in a forum Monday hosted by Harvard’s public health school.
“It’s really important to distinguish ‘Oh goodness there’s a new cluster’ from ‘Oh goodness we just discovered that there’s a cluster that’s been there for some time.”
Global health officials said Monday there is still time to contain the coronavirus as the death toll in America rose to two in Washington state and the virus spread in California.
“I think we have a common enemy,” said Tedros. “We have to stand together in unison to fight it, and these early signs are very encouraging.”
WHO officials declined to declare COVID-19 a pandemic, saying 90% of the cases have been in China. Of the 3,000 deaths from the virus, 2,803 have been in China’s Hubei province, where the outbreak began. “Our message to all countries is this is not a one-way street — we can push this back,” Tedros said.
“Our actions now will determine the course of this outbreak.” he added. “Containment is possible in all countries that are affected, and that should be No. 1.”
In the United States, there have been approximately 80 cases of the virus.
In California, at least 40 cases have been reported. Twenty-four people who have caught the virus either were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship or in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak was first reported, and were then repatriated to the U.S. and quarantined at California military bases. An additional 16 cases have been discovered in returning travelers or, in at least five instances, people who contracted the virus in their community.
Of the 62 countries affected by COVID-19, 55 have fewer than 100 cases. Only four countries have more than 1,000 cases, Tedros said.
WHO officials said it is rare to see a respiratory pathogen like this virus that can spread widely in the community but can also be contained. The flu cannot be as easily contained, officials said.
“That offers us a glimmer, a chink of life that this virus can be suppressed and contained,” Mike Ryan, who runs the agency’s emergencies program, said in a briefing Monday.