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CDC tells people over 60 or who have chronic illnesses like diabetes to stock up on goods and buckle down for a lengthy stay at home

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tami Chappell | Reuters

Many Americans will be exposed to COVID-19 over the next year or so with many people in the U.S. getting sick, a top CDC official said Monday, recommending that people over 60 and anyone with chronic medical conditions buckle down for a lengthy stay home. 

“This virus is capable of spreading easily and sustainably from person to person … and there’s essentially no immunity against this virus in the population,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on a conference call, citing World Health Organization data that studied more than 70,000 cases in China.

“It’s fair to say that, as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time, either this year or next, be exposed to this virus and there’s a good chance many will become sick,” she said. Most people won’t develop serious symptoms, she said, adding that 15% to 20% of the people who are exposed to the virus get severely sick.

Of the 70,000 cases WHO scientists looked at, only about 2% were in people younger than 19. The odds of developing COVID-19 increase with age, starting at age 60. It’s especially lethal for people over 80. 

“This seems to be a disease that affects adults and most seriously older adults,” she said. “Starting at age 60, there is an increasing risk of disease and the risk increases with age.” 

People with diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and other serious underlying conditions are more likely to develop “serious outcomes, including death,” she said.

The CDC is recommending people with underlying conditions or who are over 60 to stock up on medications, household items and groceries to stay at home “for a period of time,” she said. The U.S. government recommended travelers with underlying health conditions avoid taking any cruises anywhere in the world. “We also recommend people at higher risk avoid non-essential travel, such as long plane trips,” she said. 

The CDC is recommending that people at higher risk avoid crowds, touching “high-touch” surfaces in public areas and close contact with people who are sick.

“These are the kind of recommendations that I’ve made to my parents … other staff at CDC are doing the same,” she said. 

While the virus is slowing in China where it originated in December, it’s picking up pace across other parts of the world. Italy has the most cases outside of China with more than 9,100 infections, followed by Korea and Iran, which each had more than 7,100 COVID-19 cases as of Monday afternoon, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

In the U.S., cases erupted over the last week to more than 600 infected and 22 killed, according to John Hopkins University. Almost half of the more than 600 cases in the U.S. are in Washington state and California, with 19 deaths across the U.S.California, Washington and New York, although the virus has now spread to more than 30 states across the U.S. 

“During an outbreak with a new virus there is a lot of uncertainty. Our guidelines and recommendations are likely to be interim and subject to change as we learn more,” she said. In South Korea, no one under the age of 30 has died and in Japan, no one under 50 has died, she said. “Data from these countries help us understand the potential risk in the U.S.”