SATURDAY, Feb. 15, 2020 — The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak — and the global response to it — continues to evolve, with the first death outside Asia reported in France on Saturday.
Also on Saturday, U.S. health officials announced that a chartered flight will arrive on Sunday to evacuate 400 American passengers stranded on a cruise ship docked in Japan.
The passengers will be flown to Travis Air Force base in northern California, and some of those passengers will go on to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement issued Saturday.
The U.S. announcement is an about-face after a week of reassurances that such a move was not deemed necessary. But now the level of danger to the American passengers on board the ship is thought to be too high to allow them to remain on board. A total of more than 3,700 passengers and crew are on the ship, and more than 200 cases have now been reported.
“This is a dynamic situation,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in an emailed letter to passengers, The New York Times reported. The letter explained that, “to fulfill our government’s responsibilities to U.S. citizens,” officials are now recommending “that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States.”
Passengers who return on the flight will be held in quarantine in the United States for two weeks and will be housed separately from other evacuees, the CDC said.
In a news briefing on Friday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that “we are concerned that the data coming out of Japan suggests there’s a higher risk among the people on the ship, and therefore their safety is of utmost importance.”
According to the Times, 67 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Saturday on the Diamond Princess — the biggest jump yet recorded in a single day.
Following the U.S. announcement, a number of other countries with passengers onboard — Australia and Italy — have now also announced they were looking into options to help stranded citizens, the newspaper reported.
In the meantime, government officials in France announced the first known death linked to COVID-19 occurring outside of Asia. An 80-year-old tourist visiting France from the Chinese province of Hubei, the epicenter of the outbreak, died in Paris on Friday, the Times reported. Three other deaths have occurred in Asia but outside of China.
As of Saturday morning, more than 66,000 cases — almost all within China — have been recorded, including 1,523 deaths. Over the past 24 hours 2,641 new cases and 143 deaths were confirmed, Chinese officials said.
The first case of infection on the continent of Africa was also identified on Friday, involving a person in Egypt who has tested positive for coronavirus but has so far shown no symptoms. The patient is in quarantine in a hospital, Egyptian health ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed told Ahram Online.
In the Friday U.S. news briefing, U.S. health officials said that COVID-19 appears to be most infectious when patients are at the peak of their illness.
“Based on what we know now, we believe this virus spreads mainly from person to person among close contacts, which is defined as about six feet, through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” Messonnier told reporters.
“People are thought to be the most contagious when they are most symptomatic, that is when they are the sickest,” she added.
“Some spread may happen by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching the eyes, nose and mouth,” she added. “But remember, we believe this virus does not last long on surfaces. Some spread may happen before people show symptoms. There have been a few reports of this with the new coronavirus, and it is compatible with what we know about other respiratory viruses, including seasonal flu. But right now, we don’t believe these last two forms of transmission are the main driver of spread.”
Messonnier also noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a new strategy aimed at stemming any potential spread of coronavirus within the United States.
The “CDC has begun working with five public health labs across the U.S. to tap into their ability to conduct community-based influenza surveillance, so we can begin testing people with flu-like symptoms for novel coronavirus,” she said.
“This is an extra layer of our response that will help us detect if and when this virus is spreading in the community,” she said, explaining that samples of flu-like illness that test negative for influenza will then be tested for coronavirus.
For the first time, the number of Chinese medical workers who have been infected with the virus was reported Friday, with 1,700 confirmed illnesses and six deaths, the Times reported.
“This is concerning and consistent with what CDC knows from our experience with SARS and MERS, where we saw that transmission can be amplified in health care settings if infection control practices are not carefully followed,” Messonnier said.
Meanwhile, two new cases were confirmed in the United States this week, upping the total from 13 to 15.
Both of the new cases involved quarantined patients who were among the hundreds of American evacuees from China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The CDC added that testing of all evacuees is still underway, and “there will likely be additional cases [identified] in the coming days and weeks.”
Just last week, a 60-year-old man living in Wuhan, China, became the first American citizen to die from the new coronavirus.
The man, whose name has not been disclosed, died last week at Jinyintian Hospital in Wuhan, the U.S. Embassy in China said Saturday.
Earlier this month, the United States began to bar entry to any foreigners who have recently traveled to China. U.S. citizens who have recently traveled to the Hubei province of China, where Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, is located, will be quarantined for up to 14 days, U.S. health officials said. U.S. citizens who have recently traveled to other parts of China will face health screenings and voluntary quarantines of up to 14 days.
The temporary entry ban applies to foreign nationals, with the exception of relatives of citizens and permanent residents.
The WHO has already declared the new coronavirus outbreak an international public health emergency.
Experts fear the outbreak could become a pandemic, where there are outbreaks on more than one continent.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
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