Since early February, thousands of people returning to the United States from mainland China have been asked to isolate themselves at home for 14 days. Preventing the spread of infectious disease is the essence of public health work, but the scale of efforts by state and local health departments across the country to contain any potential spread of the coronavirus has rarely been seen, experts said.
Local health officials check in daily by email, phone or text. They arrange tests for people who come down with symptoms, along with groceries and isolated housing, in some cases. There is no centralized tally in the United States of people being monitored or asked to remain in isolation, and they are scattered across the nation’s nearly 3,000 local health jurisdictions.
People arriving from mainland China are added each day, while those who have completed 14-day “self-quarantine” periods are released from oversight. In California alone, the department of public health has been monitoring more than 6,700 returning travelers from China. Health officials in Washington State have tracked about 800, and officials in Illinois more than 200.
Even as the first of 34 confirmed coronavirus patients in the United States have recovered in recent days, health officials say they are preparing for what some fear could still be a much wider outbreak.
So far, officials say, the containment effort has been largely orderly. The only known transmission of the virus in the United States has involved people in the same household. But no matter how effective health workers are in monitoring their charges, “there will always be some leakage,’’ said John Wiesman, the secretary of health in Washington State.
“There is no way, with something this large, that you can make it seal-proof,’’ Dr. Wiesman said. While enforcing total compliance with isolation orders may not be possible, he said, “We have to try for 80 to 85 percent, and hopefully that will work.’’