Five public health labs already conducting influenza surveillance in the U.S. will test specimens for novel coronavirus (COVID-19) if they test negative for influenza, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today. In addition to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York City, CDC will add more cities in the coming weeks to better detect if the virus is spreading in communities.

The results of this testing is intended to serve as an early warning signal that CDC will use to indicate if it is time to change its public health approach, Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said. She also said that the U.S. public health efforts are now based on containment of the outbreak, but if this testing shows community spread, the approach will shift to mitigation strategies, such as social distancing measures and increased use of telemedicine. She noted that CDC is working on guidance that would better define this potential shift to mitigation, but that past work in pandemic influenza planning has already laid the groundwork for mitigation approaches should COVI-19 infections become widespread.

CDC also clarified that the current understanding of how COVID-19 spreads is through respiratory droplets (from sneezing or coughing) from an infected person who is within six feet of another person. Although it is possible to contract the virus by touching a contaminated object and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth, COVID-19 cannot survive long on surfaces.

The World Health Organization reported that over 1,700 Chinese health care workers have been infected, and six have died.

“This is a critical piece of information, because health workers are the glue that holds the health system and outbreak response together,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said today in a press briefing. “But we need to know more about this figure, including the time period and circumstances in which the health workers became sick.”

Messonnier said no U.S. health care personnel have been infected so far, but added, “We need to be pristine in our health care settings to keep our health care workers safe.”

WHO reports over 49,000 cases and 1,381 deaths, the majority in China. Global confirmed cases stand at 505.

For the latest information and resources, visit AHA’s coronavirus webpage.

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