The Centers for Disease Control says on its website that “It’s likely that at some point, widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur”:

Widespread transmission of COVID-19 would translate into large numbers of people needing medical care at the same time. Schools, childcare centers, workplaces, and other places for mass gatherings may experience more absenteeism. Public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services, and transportation industry may also be affected. Health care providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed. At this time, there is no vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and no medications approved to treat it. Nonpharmaceutical interventions would be the most important response strategy.

What the CDC is trying to convey, Arkansas Department of Health Chief Epidemiologist Mike Cima said Wednesday, “is that this is a new occurrence. It is challenging in the way it transmits. It’s different from anything we have experienced in a long time.”

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So it’s clear that Arkansas will not be able to escape cases of the novel coronavirus, which as of Thursday was in 18 states. And the ADH has been working with hospitals, clinics, the state Department of Education and others who need information. But can we estimate how widespread will it become in Arkansas?

Cima and Senior Medical Advisor Dr. Gary Wheeler are making no predictions; Cima said that would be “foolhardy. The situation changes so rapidly on the ground and internationally. What was relevant Monday is not relevant anymore.”

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Wheeler said the rate of infection in Arkansas will depend on how well the coronavirus can be contained in the 70 countries where it has been found and in the United States where it is most prevalent (the greatest concentration is in Washington state, with 32 confirmed cases and 9 deaths thanks to a nursing home outbreak; California, with 27 confirmed cases and one death; New York; Toronto; and British Columbia). Find up-to-date information on the global spread here.

It will also depend on how well people adopt precautions — no handshakes, hand-washing for 20 seconds several times a day, using alcohol on surfaces that have been touched, avoiding people who are showing signs of a cold, quarantining themselves if they suspect illness. Some health professionals are predicting a worldwide infection rate of 40 to 70 percent, Wheeler said. Arkansas’s location in the middle of the country, with less travel in and out, will help protect Arkansas “up to a point,” Wheeler said.

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“Even if we contain it,” he said, the question is, “will it re-emerge in the fall?” 

As of Thursday, two persons in Arkansas were being evaluated for COVID-19 and 64 travelers were being monitored with daily check-ins. Four people have tested negative, according to the ADH. Six tests have been conducted; it takes 24 hours to get results. Friday’s results will be reported on the ADH website at 9 a.m. UPDATE: No positive tests.

Microbiologist Carol Daniels in the testing area of the Arkansas Department of Health.

A difficulty in containing the spread of the novel coronavirus — besides the fact that it is new to humans, none of us have immunity to it and there is no treatment for it — is that people may not feel terribly unwell for several days while carrying a high viral load, which means they can spread the virus unknowingly. Influenza, on the other hand, tends to quickly make people sick, so they are more likely to retreat from the public.

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President Trump, in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox on Wednesday, suggested that people who could be sick but feel fine could go to work. That’s a bad idea that would be an excellent way to create an epidemic, so one hopes the listeners ignored it. It should also be noted that COVID-19 is not the flu, despite the fact that the president has described it as “corona flu” on national television. Nor can it be treated or avoided with a “solid flu vaccine,” as he put it in a question the CEO of a pharmaceutical company this week.

Fortunately for Arkansas, the health department is better informed about, if not better armed against, COVID-19. With information from the CDC, it is monitoring travelers who’ve either been identified as coming to Arkansas from COVID-19 hot spots, “oftentimes alerted even before the landed,” epidemiologist Cima said. Others have self-reported, knowing the risk from their travel. The health department is using an electronic text illness monitoring system so that people being followed can answer questions about their health on a daily basis. Those who don’t want to use the TIM are calling in.

Cima and other epidemiologists are answering the ADH hotline for COVID-19; Cima had handled it for 10-hour days for three days running when we talked. Most are calls from people who are worried that their flu or cold symptoms might be novel coronavirus, and he queries them on travel and whether they’ve been in contact with people who have traveled to hot spots. The department has fielded 371 calls since it created the hotline, spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said.

Cima said the virus situation is serious, “but there is no reason to panic.” The most important thing people can do is “be aware, have a healthy state of awareness.”