Minnesota experts: It’s time families plan for COVID-19 outbreak

Police officers block the access to Schiavonia hospital.
Police officers block the access to Schiavonia hospital in Monselice, Italy, on Monday amid fears over the spread of COVID-19.
Marco Sabadin | AFP via Getty Images

So far, there are a few dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the United States.

But Minnesota Department of Health infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said it's very likely there will be outbreaks of the virus here. And Michael Osterholm, an expert in infectious disease at the University of Minnesota, said people should assume the virus will hit hard.

Ehresmann said Monday that the state is well prepared to identify cases quickly and isolate them. But if cases are widespread, it's likely that schools, churches and other public meeting spaces would be closed.

"When we talk about shutting things down, we look at how can we use that strategy effectively to slow down the spread of the disease so that we can manage it better," she said.

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Ehresmann said slowing the spread of a fast-moving virus can be critical to helping manage it. The World Health Organization has praised China for shutting down communities in an effort to slow the virus.

She explained why the speed with which the virus spreads is important: “Because if you have a really steep acceleration of new cases of disease, that has the potential to overwhelm your health care system."

Ehresmann said health officials are concerned about adequate supplies for hospitals in the event of a pandemic. Many hospitals are already handling a lot of patients from a busy influenza season, she said.

Osterholm, director of the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said people should plan for the worst.

"We're sure not trying to project doom and gloom,” he said. “But we have to be honest so that when people begin to see this unfold that they say, ‘Well, you know, we knew this could happen, and this is what we're going to do about it.’"

People read an information board.
People read an information board on the closure of the Cathedral of the Duomo of Milan due to security measures against the new coronavirus, COVID-19, in Milan on Monday.
Andreas Solaro | AFP via Getty Images file

Osterholm said there need to be plans for keeping basic infrastructure like electricity flowing and food supplies on store shelves if large numbers of people are sick. And families also need to have a plan.

"Families need to have plans for how they will stay in contact with each other,” he said. “Who's going to take care of Grandma if she gets sick? For single parent families, who's going to be there when the kids get sick or the or the mom or dad gets sick? That's the kind of thing right now that is really important that we need to begin to address, and you know we haven't."

Ehresmann said there are some simple but important things everyone can do to reduce the spread of a virus: Stay home when you're sick. Limit physical contact like handshakes.

And she said everyone should think about what they would need to care for sick family members at home.

“Just to make sure that you know you have some basic resources, in terms of foodstuffs and things like that,” she said. “So that if you would have family members get sick and you were unable to go out for a few days, do you have enough basic supplies to kind of keep going?"

Ehresmann and Osterholm both said no one should panic, but everyone should prepare.