The CDC is warning Americans to be prepared for a coronavirus outbreak. Here's what you need to know.

Lauren Wicks, Nutrition review by: Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
February 28, 2020
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The coronavirus has proved that it isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and federal health agencies are encouraging Americans to be prepared for an outbreak in the U.S. The CDC confirmed Wednesday that there is a possible instance of community spread after a person in California was diagnosed with coronavirus without any relevant travel history or interaction with another known patient with the illness. So, where do we go from here?

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"The individual risk for many Americans right now remains low," says Amira Roess, Ph.D., M.P.H., an infectious disease specialist and a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. "Most Americans are not traveling to affected countries and are not coming into contact with infected individuals. However, this can change as the situation unfolds." She advises consulting with the CDC and local health department websites for the latest information and recommendations for your location.

We asked Roess and Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D., EatingWell's senior nutrition editor, their top tips for staying healthy and preparing for a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Here's what you need to know to prepare for a potential outbreak in your community.

Stock Up on Healthy Non-Perishables and Household Items

Roess advises having a two-week supply of food, water, health supplies and medications at home, per HHS recommendations. She says you may want to consider having over-the-counter medications you would use for treating a cold or the flu on hand—including pain and fever relievers, cough and cold medicines and any vitamins you normally take. She also says to make sure you have your prescription drugs filled.

"Having some healthy, shelf-stable foods on hand can be helpful, especially if you can't make it out to the store," Valente says. "Think of things you like to eat when you have the cold or flu—soup or broth, smoothie ingredients like frozen fruit and some bland foods, like crackers and pretzels, may not be a bad idea. Also, adding some extra pantry and freezer staples, like beans, frozen vegetables, sauces and whole grains can help you whip up easy meals if you end up stuck at home."

Clean More Often

You should also add cleaning supplies to your shopping list. While we can't always control who we (or our family members) come in contact with, we can be vigilant about keeping our homes as germ-free as possible.

"Clean areas that tend to have the most action," says Roess. "For most of us that includes door knobs, door handles, entryways, bathrooms and railings. They should be disinfected often."

Roess also advises periodically disinfecting common household objects, like smartphones tablets and laptops. She says they pick up a lot of germs because we are constantly touching them. Backpacks, lunchboxes, clothes and winter accessories (think: hats and gloves) could also use some routine cleaning.

Teach Your Kids (and Yourself!) Proper Germ Management

Schools around the country are already beginning to prepare in case of an outbreak. Some are sending home letters that urge parents to lead the way in frequent hand-washing and keeping kids home from school if they are sick.

Roess advises opting for traditional hand-washing methods over using hand sanitizer, unless that is the only available option. She says we should all wash our hands often and well—especially after getting home, being in crowds and before eating or handling food.

"Coronaviruses, influenza viruses and other respiratory pathogens are generally spread through airborne droplets," Roess says. "It is important to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and to distance yourself from people who have runny noses or are coughing or sneezing."

Not only should you steer clear of people who are sick, you should be careful not to touch your face—particularly your eyes, nose and mouth—as Roess says this is one of the most common ways to introduce a bacteria or virus to our bodies.

Stay Home From Work When Sick—and Encourage Co-Workers to Do the Same

It's important to fight the urge to go into work when you're sick—especially in the midst of a potential coronavirus outbreak. It's not fair to you or your co-workers, and you're likely to recover quicker when you're getting adequate rest. It could be worth talking to your boss or team members about establishing a plan for working at home in case there is an outbreak.

Roess says if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, you should consider staying home from work for the duration of your illness plus 24 hours after your symptoms go away. The same goes for sick kids. Call your doctor if you're concerned about you or your family member having a coronavirus infection.

Stress Is Not the Answer

Stressing over the possible coronavirus outbreak? Roess says that's not doing you any favors. She says it's as important as ever to maintain a healthy lifestyle to support your immune system, and stress plays a major role.

While the future regarding the coronavirus is out of our control, Roess says we can load up on fruits and veggies, stay hydrated, exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Alongside practicing proper hygiene, cleaning certain household items frequently and keeping our homes stocked with healthy items, we should finally take a deep breath and know we are doing our best to keep our families healthy and safe.