The U.S. is not prepared for what is coming as COVID-19 spreads rapidly across the country, public health and infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm told CNBC on Tuesday.
The virus has surpassed the containment stage, he said, and the U.S. government is not responding appropriately for the magnitude of spread the country will likely see.
"Right now we're approaching this like it's the Washington, D.C., blizzard — for a couple days we're shut down," the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota said in a "Squawk Box" interview. "This is actually a coronavirus winter and we're in the first week."
The U.S. is not containing the virus, Osterholm added, warning that it is substantially more contagious than some U.S. officials have warned. He said the most important thing is to protect people who are most at risk of dying from the virus, mostly older people and those with underlying health conditions.
"This is just going to keep spreading. We have to stop fooling people into thinking this is only by close contact where I have to be within 2 or 3 feet. We're going to see much more transmission," he said. "There will be widespread transmission of this virus around the country, and what we have to do is keep people who are at high risk of having bad outcomes, older, underlying health conditions, from being exposed."
COVID-19 has infected more than 755 Americans, according to Johns Hopkins University, and killed at least 26. Johns Hopkins' data shows that the virus has spread to more than half of the states.
Osterholm called on U.S. officials to more clearly communicate to the American public the threat COVID-19 poses.
"What I find really concerning is we've really not set the agenda here for the American public I think in a realistic way," he said.
The hardest-hit states include New York, California and Washington. Over the past 24 hours, the U.S. has confirmed at least 148 new cases, according to Johns Hopkins, marking a nearly 25% increase in cases over night.
"We're going to see transmission for many, many more weeks to come," Osterholm said. "We have to prepare for that."
Osterholm's remarks echoed that of a top official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who warned on Monday that many Americans will be exposed to COVID-19 over the next year or two with many people in the U.S. getting sick. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, also recommended that people over 60 and anyone with chronic medical conditions buckle down for a lengthy stay home, echoing Osterholm's remarks.
"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," she 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.