Tensions over how to contain a COVID-19 outbreak on Tuesday escalated in the US as the death toll climbed to nine and lawmakers expressed doubts about the government’s ability to ramp up testing fast enough to deal with the crisis.
All of the deaths have occurred in Washington state, and most were residents of a nursing home in suburban Seattle.
The number of infections in the US overall climbed past 100, scattered across at least 15 states, with 27 cases in Washington alone.
“What is happening now in the United States may be the beginning of what is happening abroad,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adding that in China, where the outbreak began more than two months ago, older and sicker people are about twice as likely to become seriously ill as those who are younger and healthier.
The nursing home outbreak apparently seeded the first case in North Carolina, authorities said.
A Wake County resident who had visited the nursing home tested positive, but is in isolation at home and is doing well, the North Carolina governor’s office said.
In suburban Seattle, 27 firefighters and paramedics who responded to calls at the nursing home were tested for the virus on Tuesday using a drive-thru system set up in a hospital parking area.
In the nation’s capital, officials moved on a number of fronts.
A bipartisan US$7.5 billion emergency bill to fund the government’s response to the outbreak worked its way through the US Congress.
The US Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) also sought to ease a shortage of masks by giving healthcare workers the okay to use an industrial type of respirator mask designed to protect construction crews from dust and debris.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill expressed skepticism about US health officials’ claims that testing for the new virus should be widely available soon.
CDC test kits delivered to states and cities in January proved faulty.
Authorities have said labs across the country should have the capacity to run as many as 1 million tests by the end of the week.
Yet testing so far has faced delays and missteps, and “I’m hearing from health professionals that’s unrealistic,” US Senator Patty Murray told a Senate hearing.
The FDA has been working with a private company to get as many as 2,500 test kits out to labs by the end of the week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said.
Each kit should enable a lab to run about 500 tests, he said.
However, health officials were careful about making promises.
“I am optimistic, but I want to remain humble,” CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said.
In Washington state, researchers believe the virus might have been circulating undetected for weeks. That has raised fears that there could be hundreds of undiagnosed cases in the area.
Yet some people who want to be tested for the virus in the state are encountering confusion, a lack of testing options and other problems as health authorities scramble to deal with the crisis.
“The people across my state are really scared. I’m hearing from people who are sick, who want to get tested and don’t know where to go,” Murray said. “It’s unacceptable that people in my state can’t even get an answer as to whether or not they are infected.”
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