Coronavirus: First US deaths away from West Coast reported as authorities scramble to dock infected ship

Seventeen people in the US have died following their exposure to the flu-like respiratory illness, which has sickened thousands globally

Alex Woodward
New York
,Dave Maclean
Saturday 07 March 2020 15:33
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Mike Pence greets governor with 'coronavirus handshake' amid backlash over lack of testing kits in US

Authorities in California are still discussing where to dock a cruise ship with 21 infected people on board, as the number of coronavirus cases in the US spiked to more than 300 and the death toll hit 17.

Of the people on board the Grand Princess who are infected, 19 are crewmembers and two are passengers. Officials suggested that crewmembers may have come into contact with the virus during the ship’s second tour after a chaotic outbreak onboard last month.

Authorities in Florida reported the first two US deaths away from the West Coast. They said the two patients were in their 70s and one had underlying health problems.

That means a total of 17 people in the US have died following their exposure to the flu-like respiratory illness, which has sickened thousands globally.

Vice president Mike Pence, who leads the administration’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak, gave an update on infections at a White House briefing on Friday.

The announcement follows Donald Trump‘s tour of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, where he said he would rather have passengers remain on board the vessel for apparently political reasons, adding that he would let others make the decision whether to let the passengers disembark.

“I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship,” he said, having repeatedly sought to play down statements from his own health experts on the disease’s spread in recent days. He wore a “keep America great” campaign hat during his visit.

The president suggested that people can easily access tests, despite Mr Pence’s admission on Thursday that there are not enough kits and a later concession on Friday that the wider public would be unable to access the diagnostics for weeks.

Mr Trump also called Jay Inslee, Democratic governor of Washington state which is suffering one of the largest outbreaks in the US, a “snake” and said he had instructed Mr Pence not to pay him any compliments. “I said, ‘If you’re nice to him he will take advantage’,” the president added.

On Friday, six states – Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Nebraska – reported their first cases, bringing the total to 25 states that now have the virus.

Word of the new cases capped a week during which the virus began to disrupt daily life for many Americans.

In Seattle, the epicentre of the nation’s outbreak, there were school closures and orders to work from home. Twitter said its office would be deep-cleaned after an employee tested positive. In Miami and Baltimore, areas less affected by the outbreak, music festivals and sporting events were canceled or curtailed as a precaution.

In the most high profile cancellation, the South by Southwest (SXSW) music and tech festival in Austin, Texas was called off on Friday.

As stocks plunge and US companies grapple with the economic fallout, the Trump administration is also weighing tax relief for the deeply affected cruise, travel and airline industries, according to a source familiar with the plan.

There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the respiratory illness, which emerged in China and has spread to more than 90 nations, killing more than 3,400 people and infecting more than 100,000 worldwide.

Americans are sharply divided over the dangers of the new coronavirus, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Critics of Trump, including Democratic lawmakers, have accused the president of downplaying the significance of the outbreak for political reasons. He has said the risk to Americans is low.

A union representing tens of thousands of US government employees on Friday called on the Trump administration to take the coronavirus seriously for federal workers, especially those working in areas directly impacted by the outbreak.

Washington’s King County has been the hardest hit area in the US with at least a dozen of the nation’s 15 coronavirus deaths, several of whom were people living at a nursing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.

The University of Washington announced on Friday that all classes would be held virtually for the rest of the winter term to limit contagion.

Apple Inc asked staff at its Silicon Valley headquarters to work from home if possible as a “precaution”. Gap Inc closed its New York headquarters because one employee had tested positive.

In Florida, Miami officials cancelled two music festivals on Friday – Ultra and Calle Ocho – because of potential risk that coronavirus could spread at events that bring large crowds into close proximity.

For similar reasons, the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament will go ahead at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this weekend but without spectators, the university said on Friday.

The crisis has hit stocks hard. The benchmark S&P 500 closed down another 1.7 per cent on Friday, after falling nearly 3 per cent the day before.

As new states report their first cases, others watched their tally grow. Cases in New York jumped to 44 from 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, adding that some 4,000 people in the state were under precautionary quarantine and 44 under mandatory quarantine.

But he also tried to stem any sense of panic by the public. “I think the anxiety and the fear is more of a problem than the virus,” Cuomo said.

Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar, who was present at Trump’s bill signing, said the CDC had already sent tests for 75,000 people to public health labs around the country, amid widespread criticism of not enough tests available for states in need.

Azar said a private contractor was working with the CDC to send kits capable of testing 400,000 people to private hospitals and labs nationwide.

“The production and shipping of tests that we’ve talked about all week is completely on schedule,” Azar said.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged issues that slowed distribution of coronavirus tests, but said the overall response was going well.

“There were certainly some missteps in the beginning,” he told NBC’s Today programme. “In the next couple of weeks we should be ratcheted up to get many more out.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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