U.S. Health Officials Try to Allay Coronavirus Concerns: ‘I Am Optimistic,’ ‘Risk to Americans Low’

This undated photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC’s laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP)
CDC via AP

WASHINGTON, DC — Top federal health officials made an effort to assuage Americans’ concerns about the presence of the highly contagious Chinese coronavirus in the United States during a Senate panel hearing on Tuesday.

During the Senate Committee on Health hearing Tuesday, however, the officials were careful about making misleading promises.

“I am optimistic but I want to remain humble,” Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared, referring to the Trump administration’s efforts to significantly expand new coronavirus testing to up one million U.S.-based individuals by the end of the week.

The Senate panel hearing on Tuesday featured testimony from top officials from the CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the National Institute Of Allergy And Infectious Diseases (NIAID) — a component of HHS’ National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In their joint written testimony, Dr. Schuchat; Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIAID; Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS; and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the FDA commissioner, declared:

As soon as the United States became aware of a novel coronavirus [known as COVID-19] at the end of 2019, the U.S. Government was tracking its spread and began preparing necessary responses. … It’s important to note that this virus is not spreading within American communities at this time. The potential global public health threat posed by this virus is high, but right now, the immediate risk to most Americans is low. The greater risk is for people who have recently traveled to China or been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Meanwhile, however, acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf conceded to House lawmakers that the department closed a facility in King County, Washington, because an employee fell sick.

The employee fell ill after paying a visit to a family member at a nursing home where four of the six U.S. deaths occurred.

Wolf’s comments came during a separate hearing Tuesday held by the House Homeland Security Committee.

The DHS secretary failed to specify the type of DHS facility where the employee fell ill or reveal how many employees it had. DHS has not provided further details.

The department ordered its King County facility employees to “self-quarantine,” and work from home for 14 days.

Senate panel lawmakers, namely Democrats, expressed skepticism that the U.S health officials, considered some of the world’s top professionals, will be able to achieve the goal of ramping up testing.

Acknowledging that testing preparations have faced delays and other blunders, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said, “I’m hearing from health professionals that’s unrealistic.”

Washington State is the epicenter of the U.S.-based coronavirus deaths, which have reached six.

In the wake of increased testing at more labs of a larger pool of eligible patients approved by the CDC, the number of U.S.-based cases has exceeded 100 and killed six all in Washington State.

Across the world, the virus, which originated in China, is afflicting an estimated 92,300 people across 74 countries and has killed more than 3,130, the CDC official testified.

In China alone, the outbreak has grown to over 80,000 cases that have prompted more than 2,900 deaths so far, Dr. Schuchat added.

The vast majority (over 80 percent) of coronavirus cases, however, are still concentrated in China.

Some analysts question the accuracy of the reporting coming out of communist China where the coronavirus has devastated the growing economy.

During the hearing, U.S. health officials asserted that they have addressed the issues limiting the roll-out of testing kits.

The Associated Press (AP) notes:

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said 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. Each kit should be able to allow a lab to run about 500 tests, he said. As of Tuesday, 54 state and local labs were able to do tests, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

President Donald Trump has assigned Vice President Mike Pence to spearhead the government-wide effort to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Pence will be working with officials from the agencies that sent experts to testify about the virus Tuesday as well as state, local, tribal, and territorial partners. They will focus on a unified message about any developments and efforts to prevent the spread and impact of the deadly virus.

The Trump administration initially faced problems with disseminating test kits due, in large part, to the CDC’s initial decision to limit the number of eligible people to be tested and other issues, AP points out.

Initially, CDC developed and deployed a test kit to state and big-city public health labs in a bid to increase the testing of more people. Most of the kits, however, reportedly proved to faulty, yielding inconclusive results to test samples that should have tested positive for the virus.

The CDC has vowed to fix the problem but has failed to provide a timetable.

“Only about a half dozen state and local public health labs had fully functional kits as of early last week,” AP notes.

Moreover, the CDC did not move to expand the testing criteria until recently.

Initially, the testing was limited mainly to people who had traveled to China and had developed a fever and other symptoms associated with coronavirus, as well as their close contacts.

CDC now recommends testing on individuals experiencing symptoms consistent with the virus after other respiratory illnesses have been eliminated as the possible root cause, even if the patient has not been around a potential coronavirus source.

The vast majority of people only experience mild symptoms. Coronavirus, however, can be deadly for the elderly and infirm.

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