• There are currently 50 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., most of them former passengers on the Diamond Princess
  • Chief White House economist Larry Kudlow said there's no reason to panic
  • U.S. health officials  are advising businesses, healthcare facilities and schools to come up with plans for dealing with an outbreak

U.S. public health officials warned Tuesday spread of the coronavirus within the United States is inevitable as the White House attempted to tamp down fears.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies told lawmakers and reporters the fact COVID-19 was able to spread outside China without a known source of exposure to Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand makes a U.S. outbreak highly likely.

As of Tuesday, the World Health Organization tallied 80,239 confirmed cases of the virus, with 77,780 cases and 2,666 deaths in China. The virus has spread to 33 countries where 2,459 cases have been confirmed, with 34 deaths.

The CDC noted on its website the virus currently is not spreading in the United States. Immediate risk is considered low, but the likelihood of a pandemic is high.

“Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in the United States. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Disruptions to everyday life may be severe, but people might want to start thinking about that now.”

The announcement sent U.S. stocks into a nosedive,

The CDC said it would focus on containing the virus and warn people to prepare, urging businesses, healthcare facilities and schools to alter daily interactions to keep contact to a minimum. Local officials were urged to modify, postpone or cancel large gatherings.

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for the expectation that this could be bad,” a top CDC official said.

More than 50 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, more than two-thirds of them evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

By contrast, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow tried to ease concerns, telling CNBC the virus is contained.

“It’s pretty close to airtight,” he said.

Lawmakers also tried to downplay alarms although they complained about not being given enough information about how health officials using funds to combat the virus..

The number of cases in South Korea approached 1,000 Tuesday, the highest number of infections outside China, with 11 deaths. President Moon Jae-in visited the locked-down city of Daegu, where about half the cases were diagnosed, to reassure residents the government was doing everything possible to contain the outbreak.

European health officials arrived in Italy Monday to help Rome handle the contagion. Italian authorities Tuesday reported the number of infections stood at 322 with 10 deaths, representing the bulk of the 377 infections in Europe overall. Germany had the second-most cases with 16. One death was reported in France, which had 12 cases overall.

Iran confirmed 95 cases and at least 15 deaths, with the deputy health minister admitting he is infected and experiencing fever and fatigue.