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How U.S. health officials are responding to the threat of novel coronavirus

With the novel coronavirus crisis gripping parts of Asia, thousands of passengers have been quarantined aboard cruise ships. Among them were several hundred Americans, who are now being evacuated back to the U.S., where they will undergo another quarantine in case they are infected with the virus. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to Vanderbilt University’s Dr. William Schaffner for insight.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now back to our top story: more questions today about the fate of Americans aboard two cruise ships caught up in the global coronavirus crisis.

    Amna Nawaz has the latest.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is not how Cheryl and Paul Molesky envisioned their cruise vacation.

  • Cheryl Molesky:

    We have been in this room on the Diamond Princess for the last 27 days. For the last 12 days, we have not stepped foot out of this door into the hallway.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Syracuse, New York, couple were part of the 300-plus Americans quarantined on the ship in Yokohama, Japan. The vessel, with 3,700 passengers and crew, has been docked in Japan for 12 days. More than 450 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, making it the largest cluster of cases outside of China.

    But late Sunday, U.S. officials evacuated 340 Americans who had been released from the ship, including the Moleskys, and flew them back to the United States.

  • Cheryl Molesky:

    It's a little bit scary with the numbers going up of the people being taken off the ship with the COVID-19 virus. So, you know, it's — I think it's time to go. I think it's time to cut our losses and take off.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The two flights of evacuees landed early today at military bases in Northern California and Texas. They now face another 14 days in quarantine.

    Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said it is working closely with Japanese officials to prevent a larger outbreak.

  • Sylie Briand:

    We need to make sure that we focus on our objective, public health objective, which is to contain the virus, and not to contain the people, and making sure that we can have the right balance between the health of the population in Japan and other countries, but also the health of the people being currently on this boat.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Late last week, the Westerdam cruise ship was finally allowed to dock in Cambodia, after five countries had turned it away. One passenger, an American, then traveled to Malaysia, where she tested positive for the virus days later.

    Hundreds of people released from the ship have already headed to their home countries, and they're being warned to quarantine themselves.

    In China, health experts say the outbreak may be stabilizing. Some workers returned to their jobs in Beijing and Shanghai today, as the cities' two-week quarantines expired.

  • Hu Shaolie (through translator):

    The elevator is being disinfected every two hours, and you need take your body temperature and record it before entering that building, and then take it another time before entering the office. So I don't think fear is necessary.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Chinese government said today that more than 10,000 patients who have been hospitalized with the virus have recovered and been discharged.

  • Guo Yanhong (through translator):

    All over the country, except Wuhan, the number of newly diagnosed cases has been declining for 13 consecutive days. These are really good signals illustrating that our prevention and control efforts have worked very well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    WHO scientists are now in China, working with officials there to research the spread of the virus.

    The Centers for Disease Control said the decision to repatriate Americans from the ship in Japan came after an increase in the number of new coronavirus cases on board.

    So, how well does quarantine work? And what are the risks after those who've been isolated return into the wider population?

    For that and more, I am joined by Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine.

    Dr. Schaffner, thanks for being with us. And welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you about how health officials are handling these cases. When you look at that first cruise ship case, you have got hundreds of people they decide to evacuate, fly back to the United States, even after some of them did positive for the virus.

    Are they handling this the right way?

  • William Schaffner:

    Oh, I think our officials, Amna, are handling the circumstances very, very well.

    They have well-prepared places where these folks in quarantine are going to go. They're providing excellent clinical care for the people who have been shown to be diagnosed with the virus.

    And I think we're still very much in the containment phase here in the United States. Let's find everybody, diagnose them quickly, and then public health can work on all the contacts.

    So I think our officials have this one under control.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK, what about the rest of the world now?

    We also just told the story about that second cruise ship. It was allowed to dock in Cambodia. You have got hundreds of passengers who disembarked and have already made their way on to other places, that one known case of a positive coronavirus test we know about.

    What are your concerns when it comes to that?

  • William Schaffner:

    Yes.

    Well, there, Amna, I'm a little more concerned, because there's turmoil, and there was not a consistent policy. People who have been exposed now have traveled to many parts of the world. I hope they're being identified. And I hope local public health officials are contacting them and keeping them under surveillance.

    I'm not sure that's happening. And we have now the possibility of little individual outbreaks starting in other countries, because, if those people are infected, they could start chains of transmission in other countries. That wouldn't be a good thing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, tell me a little bit about what we do know about standards of quarantine. We have been hearing a lot from passengers here who have had to go through that 14-day quarantine, some very emotional tales that they are telling, too, one woman saying, I feel like I have lost a month of my life, after 14 days of quarantine in Japan and 14 days more back in the United States.

    What is that quarantine like? And do you know if other countries are standardizing it in any other way?

  • William Schaffner:

    I don't think there's any standardization.

    But, certainly, I feel for and my hat is off to all the people who have been quarantined. It must be very, very boring. The rest of your life is moving on, and you can but deal with it through your iPhone, and it must be very, very difficult.

    Also, you're in isolation, or semi-isolation, so there's not a whole lot of interaction with other individuals. It's not a very pleasant experience. You're being imprisoned by a virus.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I have to ask you, Dr. Schaffner.

    There's a lot we don't yet know about the virus, but there's a number of theories that are being circulated and shared. And I'd like to get your take on them for the sake of making sure we're getting the right information out to our audience.

    There's some skepticism, it's fair to say, around information coming from the Chinese government, where the virus is believed to have been originated, in China.

    And there was this moment from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who gave an interview just yesterday on FOX News. And he was asked about the origins of the virus.

    Take a listen to this.

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.:

    We don't know where it originated.

    But we do know that we have to get to the bottom of that. We also know that just a few miles away from that food market is China's only biosafety level four super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases.

    Now, we don't have evidence that this disease originated there, but, because of China's duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Schaffner, what's your response to that?

  • William Schaffner:

    Well, it's a question that needs to be addressed.

    But I must say, there are no scientists or public health officials around the world who think that this is a somehow escaped virus from a containment facility.

    This is a virus, just as the SARS virus was and the MERS virus, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome viruses, these were coronavirus that came to humans from animals. That's what happened with this case.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    To Senator Cotton's point, we have heard this before, though. There is skepticism around the information coming from the Chinese government.

    Do you trust the numbers as reliable coming from the government?

  • William Schaffner:

    Well, the numbers of cases coming from China have changed over time because their case definition has changed.

    I think they're trying to do a good job, but it still is very confusing, and we have to be skeptical. We don't know whether the outbreak in Wuhan and other parts of China is continuing at the same rate, increasing, or, my goodness, it might be decreasing.

    The numbers are not consistent enough for us to draw firm conclusions yet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, to that point, we just heard today that the Chinese government is saying there was actually a dip in the number of cases.

    If that is true, what would that tell you about the potential future spread of the virus?

  • William Schaffner:

    Well, if that's true — and I certainly hope it is — it would mean that this ginormous public health experiment that they have done, quarantining from 11 million to 50 millions of people, actually did have some impact in reducing the transmission of the virus.

    I have always hoped that. I hope that's correct, and we can begin then to plan the endgame. When can we start turning things back to normal?

    But it's too early to be confident that we can do that. We can hope for the best, but we have to keep preparing for the worst.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Schaffner, just a few seconds left.

    I have to ask you. As recently as a week ago, scientists were saying there is still the potential of a global pandemic. Based on what we know in the last week, do you believe that's still the case?

  • William Schaffner:

    The potential is there, Amna.

    Whether we will get there or not, we don't know. I'm holding my breath and crossing my fingers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, thank you very much.

  • William Schaffner:

    Thank you.

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