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States impose drastic measures to battle coronavirus

State and local governments are taking drastic and unprecedented measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, an acknowledgment that parts of the country are past the point of containment.

Several cities are prohibiting large gatherings and events, big businesses are telling their workers to stay at home, and more classes are getting canceled at schools and universities.

Those disturbances to everyday life are likely to spread to other cities as an increase in testing reveals undetected cases, public health officials warned.

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In Washington state, where there are almost 270 confirmed cases, Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeOn The Trail: A third coronavirus wave builds just before Election Day Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Pandemic politics dominate competitive governor's races MORE (D) on Wednesday announced a ban in three counties on gatherings of more than 250 people, the most drastic step taken yet by a state to contain the outbreak.

“The decisions that we're making today and the decisions we probably will be making in the upcoming days are going to be profoundly disturbing to a lot of the ways we live our lives today,” Inslee said. “But I believe they are the right ones."

The slow pace of testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) means it’s unclear exactly how many people have the coronavirus in the U.S. Inslee said there are “likely hundreds, if not thousands” of people in his state who have the virus but don’t know it. 

While the CDC identified the first U.S. case in January, the agency and the public health labs it works with have tested fewer than 5,000 people for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. 

There are now more than 1,000 cases in the U.S., and states and cities are taking steps to slow the spread in an effort to prevent hospitals from becoming overburdened and unable to treat all types of patients.

San Francisco and Seattle are among the cities that have banned large gatherings of 1,000 people or more. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) of Washington, D.C., recommended all non-essential mass gatherings be canceled.

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New York state officials created a one-mile containment area in New Rochelle, where 108 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed. Within that area, schools, houses of worship and other facilities for large gatherings will be closed for two weeks.

More bans are likely to come this week, as commercial labs ramp up testing of suspected cases. 

“We know that the rest of the nation will be where we are perhaps in a couple or three weeks and we hope that the things we're doing aggressively here can set a template for the rest of the country,” Inlsee said.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said he would issue an executive order in the coming days banning mass gatherings.

The CDC and public health officials have recommended the bans on large gatherings as a way to slow the spread of the virus, especially for areas that have more than 50 confirmed cases.

“We would recommend there not be large crowds. If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a congressional committee Wednesday. “Anything that has large crowds gives risk to spread.”

The CDC also is working with four jurisdictions to develop guidance to mitigate outbreaks “so the rest of the nation can see how to operationalize this,” Director Robert Redfield told Congress.

Still, he said, “there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to the mitigation decisions that need to be made.” 

But “serious mitigation” should be done before cases are detected in any given state, city or town, Fauci said.

“If we don't do very serious mitigation now, what's going to happen is that we're going to be weeks behind, and the horse is going to be out of the barn,” he said. “Even in areas of the country, where there are no, or few cases. We've got to change our behavior. We have to essentially assume that we are going to get hit.”

Public health officials said “changing behavior” relies on the actions of individuals and the private sector and can include limiting movements outside the home by teleworking and avoiding crowds. Such steps are considered particularly necessary for the elderly and people with underlying health conditions who are more likely to die from COVID-19.

Google and Twitter are among major U.S. companies that have told their employees to work from home. Meanwhile, some professional sports teams have said they will play in empty arenas. 

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The crackdown comes as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, meaning there is global spread on at least two continents.

The worsening situation in Italy, which is nearing 13,000 cases, has also foreshadowed what some experts say could happen in the U.S. if the country doesn’t “flatten” the curve of infections by reducing the number of people who are sick at the same time.

“We're going to fight this epidemic as much as we can, and the reason is we do not want to see an avalanche of people coming into our hospitals with limited capacity,” Inslee said.

“We have a solid plan for increasing capacity as far as possible to accommodate, what could be thousands of people who need serious medical attention. But that will be stretched at best.”