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Why Washington health officials fear novel coronavirus may have been quietly spreading

The novel coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. is now blamed for six deaths, all in Washington state. Health officials worry the illness may have been spreading undetected near Seattle for weeks, possibly resulting in many undiagnosed cases. Can hospitals in Washington and across the country accommodate a “surge” of patients? Lisa Desjardins reports and talks to The New York Times’ Dr. Sheri Fink.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The toll from the coronavirus is edging up tonight across the United States.

    So far, there are six known deaths, all in Washington state, but there are fears the virus is considerably more widespread than previously known.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In the greater Seattle area, health officials now question if the coronavirus might have been spreading there undetected for weeks. If so, there could be scores of undiagnosed cases.

  • Dr. Peter Rabinowitz:

    What this means is that, almost certainly, the virus is in our community, it's circulating, it's exposing people, it's infecting people, and we have not been able to totally contain it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The state of Washington is now under a state of emergency as it ramps up its testing.

  • Dr. Jeffrey Duchin:

    Many people will have it. Most people will not be seriously ill. But we want to do two things. We want to protect those who are most at risk from becoming seriously ill. And we want to prevent many people, as many as we can, from becoming sick at the same time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Most of the patients who died in that state lived at a nursing facility in Kirkland, a place where over a dozen other people are now sick.

    Across the country, so far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed cases in 10 different states, most on the coasts, with more than 90 cases total. As the number of infections in the U.S. ticks up with each day, so too has the level of anxiety, including in states with no confirmed cases, like Hawaii, where residents are already flocking to stores to buy health supplies like masks and gloves or essentials.

    These shoppers at a Costco in Honolulu braved long lines to buy toilet paper and paper towels.

    At the White House, President Trump sought to allay any fears. He also met with pharmaceutical companies this afternoon.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're working very hard to expedite the longer process of developing a vaccine. We're also moving with maximum speed to develop therapies, so that we can help people recover as quickly as possible.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The number of virus-related deaths around the world has now topped 3,000, with infections confirmed in more than 60 countries.

    There was some good news today out of China, the original epicenter of the outbreak. The number of new infections there dropped to its lowest level in six weeks. And more than 2,500 patients were released from hospitals in the city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.

    In Switzerland today, the head of the World Health Organization warned that focus must now move elsewhere.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    In the last 24 hours, there were almost nine times more cases reported outside China than inside China.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    South Korea now has more than half the total number of cases reported outside China, with over 4,000 infections.

    Meanwhile, Italy's infections surged 50 percent over a 24-hour period to well over 1,500. But the fastest spread currently seems to be in Iran, where the caseload more than tripled in just 24 hours. Still, officials with the World Health Organization remain optimistic.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    Containment of COVID-19 is feasible and must remain the top priority for all countries. We can push this virus back. Your actions now will determine the course of the outbreak in your country. There is no choice but act now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meantime, the virus is striking at business and the global tourism industry.

    In France, the doors of the famed Louvre museum in Paris remained closed for a second day over fears of spreading the virus in its often-packed hallways. The economic blow may be far wider. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned, the coronavirus outbreak could cut global growth in half and threatens to plunge several countries into a recession.

    Despite the economic warnings, Wall Street roared back today, on hopes that central banks will act to boost growth. The Dow Jones industrial average gained nearly 1,300 points, 5 percent, to close at 26703. The Nasdaq rose 384 points, and the S&P 500 was up 136.

    Now let's take a closer look at some of the latest health concerns about the outbreak in the United States and the efforts to contain its spread.

    Dr. Sheri Fink is covering this for The New York Times and joins me now.

    Thank you for joining us. I know you have been going without sleep on this story.

    And I want to ask you, first of all, to help us understand the growing health concerns. Something we seem to be understanding about this virus is that it can infect, but then go undetected, show no symptoms for days.

    So, given that, how well do we really understand how far it has spread, including especially in Washington state, where it seems to be the biggest concern right now?

  • Dr. Sheri Fink:

    I think we don't understand quite how far it's spread for two reasons.

    One is, as you said, there can be mild illness. In fact, 80 percent of people have a really mild illness and some people may have no symptoms at all. So, that does make it hard to detect. And that's why, when you have the ability to sort of have a lot of test kits and you can test more broadly in a community, you will get a better sense of how far that virus has gone.

    The other reason is, until last week, there wasn't a lot of testing capacity in the U.S. So, just late last week, some of the states have been able to run those tests themselves and not have to send the samples all the way to Atlanta and wait for those test results.

    They have also opened up the criteria and are able to test more people. Those criteria were really narrow. You had to have traveled from China in the last 14 days, or have had contact with a known sick person before to get a test. And now there is a much broader criteria for being able to test people.

    So we should be getting a better handle.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As states start to ramp up their ability to test, there's also a concern about the next phase, which is hospitalization.

    What do we know, in Washington state, for example, about whether they have the capacity for all the potential patients who may be coming?

  • Dr. Sheri Fink:

    So they have said in a press conference today that some of the hospitals are already feeling stressed by this.

    And, certainly, we know that there's no perfect preparedness. Our hospitals are pretty busy during flu season all over the country. So that's not a surprise. Today, the World Health Organization suggested that countries really look at hospital capacity.

    How will you free up more capacity? Sometimes, hospitals in Seattle area may be looking at how can they maybe defer certain types of procedures to help make space for — if they're going to have a lot of people who have a more severe illness who will need intensive care.

    So these are things that our hospitals need to be thinking about. And they all should have a plan for the so-called surge. They are starting to see this, they have said, in Seattle.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to also ask about concerns for individuals.

    This is described as a flu-like virus. But do we have more specifics now about what it really looks like? And when someone dies from this virus, what is it that is actually the problem? Is it respiratory failure?

  • Dr. Sheri Fink:

    So, we do have some pretty good information coming out of China. Again, that's their population, their health care system.

    But for those people who are very severely sick, we know two things. One is, yes, it often is this — something called ARDS. It's a very bad respiratory complication, like a very complicated pneumonia. And that seems to be what is leading to people's — to people dying.

    We also know, from the experience of China, which people are most at risk, so the people who should be taking more precautions, who should be handwashing and really making sure, if the virus does spread in your local community, to try to protect yourself.

    And those are people who are older. And by older a lot of people who would consider young ages, I mean, 60s, for example, 50s, even, or if you have an underlying health condition, like many people do, chronic health conditions. Those are the people who have been most at risk of having this severe illness.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dr. Sheri Fink from The New York Times, very important information. Thank you.

  • Dr. Sheri Fink:

    Thanks.

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