US reports first coronavirus death in Washington state and expands travel restrictions

A woman leaves Life Care Center of Kirkland in Washington, US, on Feb 29, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The United States on Saturday (Feb 29) moved to limit travel to and from coronavirus-hit countries, announcing expanded travel restrictions on Iran and raising warnings against travel to regions of South Korea and Italy as a man in the state of Washington became the first in America to die from the virus.

The person who died was a medically high-risk man in his 50s with underlying health conditions and no history of travel or contact with a known coronavirus case, said the Public Health Department of King County, Seattle.

The respiratory illness has started spreading within communities in America, though it is concentrated on the West Coast for now. A number of cases have been confirmed in recent days in California, Washington and Oregon with no known contact with infected patients or travel to places with the virus.

The state of Washington declared a state of emergency on Saturday, and Governor Jay Inslee said officials were considering cancelling sporting events, closing schools and taking any other steps needed to slow the spread of the virus.

A nursing care facility in the state also emerged as a possible cluster, as a healthcare worker and resident were confirmed to have the virus and more than 50 people - 25 health workers and 27 residents - showed symptoms of respiratory illness or were hospitalised for pneumonia.

The US now has at least 68 confirmed cases, including 47 people who were repatriated from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

More cases will come but the risk to Americans remains low, said US President Donald Trump and top health officials at a press conference on Saturday as they urged the public to remain calm and go about their daily lives.

"Additional cases in the US are likely, but healthy individuals should be able to fully recover," said Mr Trump.

Vice-President Mike Pence, who was appointed to coordinate the country's response to the outbreak, said that America had 43 million masks available today - enough to protect patients and healthcare workers - with contracts to produce another 35 million more masks a month.

"The average American does not need to go out and buy a mask," he said amid reports of panic buying of toilet paper, bottled water and hand sanitiser in Hawaii, which imports much of its food and goods.

US Surgeon-General Jerome Adams also urged Americans not to buy masks unnecessarily, writing on Twitter on Saturday: "They are not effective in preventing the general public from catching the coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk."

The White House credits the low number of cases in America with its early action to temporarily ban foreign nationals who had recently visited China from entering the country.

On Saturday, Mr Pence said existing travel restrictions on Iran would be expanded to include any foreign national who has visited Iran in the last 14 days.

The State Department will also advise Americans not to travel to specific regions in Italy and South Korea most affected by the coronavirus, its highest level of travel advisory.

In addition, the US would work with Italy and South Korea to conduct medical screenings there of any individuals coming into the country, said Mr Pence.

The White House will also hold more briefings to keep the public informed of the situation, said Mr Trump. He added that he would meet pharmaceutical companies on Monday (March 2) about the quick development of a coronavirus vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration on Saturday authorised more laboratories to develop their own coronavirus identification tests, cutting red tape to allow many more patients to be tested and get results within hours and not in a day or two.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also expanded its criteria for patients to get tested.

"The initial Covid-19 cases in the US were linked to travel to China because travellers from China were the only ones we were testing. We could very well be finding new cases now because we've finally expanded testing criteria," said Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo on Twitter.

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