Six people have died from COVID-19 outside of Seattle, meaning the coronavirus outbreak that began in China and sickened 90,000 worldwide has entered a somber phase in the U.S.
President Trump responded Monday by pressing drug companies to speed up work on therapeutic drugs in the coming months, though a vaccine might be more than a year away. White House officials said Americans should take precautions but should not panic.
Washington state officials said five people in King County and one from Snohomish County had died, making their corner of the Pacific Northwest the center of an outbreak that is affecting both coasts. No other deaths were reported in the U.S. on Monday.
“On behalf of the president and all of the American people, we are extending our deepest condolences and sympathies to those who were lost,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “Despite today’s sad news, let’s be clear: The risk to the American people from the coronavirus remains low.”
Still, officials said passengers on direct flights from the hard-hit nations of Italy and South Korea will be subject to “100% screening” as of Tuesday morning to protect the American public. They acknowledged that more cases are likely to be found as testing expands.
More than two dozen cases are related to person-to-person spread in the U.S., a brisk increase from the first case reported Wednesday.
King County officials reported four new cases of the virus Monday. Among them were the deaths of a man and a woman in their 70s who had underlying conditions and were residents at the LifeCare nursing facility that has reported several infections.
A woman in her 80s who had been reported to be in critical condition also died, as did a patient from Snohomish County. Officials reported two deaths over the weekend in King County, putting the state’s death toll at six.
County officials proclaimed an emergency that will authorize overtime for county employees. It is buying out a motel to isolate patients in recovery and those in treatment.
“We have moved to a new stage in the fight to contain and mitigate this outbreak,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “As we learn more about this outbreak, it’s now more important than ever that we look out for one another and stand strong as a community.”
Mr. Trump, at the White House, said he is eyeing broader restrictions on travel, though he wasn’t specific.
“We are … from certain countries where they’re having more of a breakout,” the president confirmed to reporters during a sitdown with pharmaceutical executives.
Human trials on drug therapies may begin this spring, perhaps next month, but a vaccine would take at least a year to develop, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
Mr. Trump said he would try to smooth the regulatory path to cures, though he seemed cool to the idea of federal seed money for research and development.
“Some of them are so rich,” he quipped about the drug companies. “They can actually loan money to the federal government.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is monitoring 17 travel-related cases, 26 cases of person-to-person spread and 48 cases in repatriated Americans from China and Japan, for a total of 91.
Florida reported two new cases, including one near Tampa with no clear link to travel and one in a woman who had traveled to a hard-hit part of Italy. Other states, including Rhode Island and New York, have reported cases linked to travel.
The swift uptick in cases can be explained by an increase in testing, as federal officials loosen the criteria to check patients and clear the way for states and local authorities to take on testing duties.
Over the weekend, the Food and Drug Administration announced rules that allow academic centers and private companies to develop tests for COVID-19, the name of the coronavirus disease.
“There is little doubt that changing testing criteria picks up more cases. I also am quite sure there have been undetected cases in the U.S. for weeks and there still is,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.
Researchers in Washington state say the virus may have been present for several weeks, though scientists are still trying to scrub the data and draw conclusions.
Officials who briefed White House reporters said the detection of cases as testing improves suggests the system is working as intended.
They said the entire country isn’t at a high level of risk, despite the unknowns about how many cases lurk in the shadows.
“I would imagine it is still going to be low regardless of that,” Dr. Fauci said.
On Wall Street, stocks surged despite the booming number of cases as investors tried to rebound from a virus-related correction last week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 1,293 points higher, or 5%, and the S&P 500 and Nasdaq each rose over 4%, as the Federal Reserve hinted at action to shield the economy from the outbreak.
The coronavirus was discovered in China in December. It causes an illness that is mild in many people but can cause respiratory distress, organ failure and death, especially in older people or those with underlying medical conditions.
The virus has sickened roughly 90,000 people around the globe and killed more than 3,000.
China has reported about 80,000 cases, mainly at the outbreak’s epicenter in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province. As Beijing gets a handle on the outbreak, the virus is flaring up in other places.
South Korea has recorded more than 4,300 cases, Italy has nearly 1,700 and Iran is approaching 1,000, making them alarming hot spots.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said that in the 24 hours before his Monday press briefing, there were “almost nine times more cases reported outside China than inside China.”
“The epidemics in the Republic of Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are our greatest concern,” he said.
Mr. Trump previously imposed travel restrictions on foreign nationals who had been to China or Iran, but he is looking at new measures on a rolling basis.
Mr. Pence, who is in charge of the U.S. response, said passengers from South Korea and Italy will have their temperatures taken multiple times during the boarding process.
Mr. Pence said there are no restrictions or advisories on travel within the U.S.
Mr. Trump said he won’t stop holding campaign rallies despite concerns about the coronavirus.
“I think it’s very safe,” said Mr. Trump, who held a rally Monday night in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He said holding massive gatherings is a staple in an election year.
“These were set up a long time ago, and others are,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “You could ask that to the Democrats because they’re having a lot of rallies. They’re all having rallies because that’s what they’re doing — they’re campaigning.”
Senate Democrats question Mr. Trump’s commitment to the fight and accuse the White House of viewing the problem through a political lens.
“Testing kits were not promptly sent to the hospitals and medical labs around the country. Political personnel has overruled the recommendations of the CDC, and the administration was slow to appoint any single official with public health expertise to coordinate our government’s response,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “Even now, President Trump seems to be spending more of his time blaming the media, blaming the Democrats than being constructive. In fact, he blames everyone not named Donald Trump.”
Mr. Trump has said the response should be bipartisan and free of politics, though his campaign took a swipe at his Democratic rivals Monday.
“While the Trump administration is taking proactive steps to combat coronavirus, Democrats are campaigning on their Bernie Sanders-inspired, socialist health care agenda, which would take away Americans’ access to quality health care,” the campaign said in an email blast.