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President Trump Confirms 1st U.S. Coronavirus Death; U.S. Heightens Travel Warnings

Roberto Schmidt, AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump speaks at the White House about the U.S. response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Updated at 4:13 p.m. ET

A person in Washington state has died of the new coronavirus, President Trump confirmed Saturday. The fatality marks the first death associated with the novel virus in the United States.

The patient who died was a man in his 50s with underlying medical conditions, according to Washington state health officials.

Also at the press conference, Vice President Mike Pence, who has been put in charge of the country's coronavirus response, announced that the U.S. would elevate an advisory to Americans to not travel to highly affected parts of Italy and South Korea. Pence also announced an expansion to the already existing travel restrictions on Iran, which also has a high number of cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also confirmed the first reported case in a health worker, and the first possible outbreak in a skilled nursing facility, both of which are also in Washington state. The state's health officials also say they are beginning to see the virus spread in the community and the risk to the public is increasing. The state officials have reported three new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, including the person who died and the health worker. Two of the patients tested positive for the coronavirus Friday night at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. One was the patient who has since died, and the other is in isolation.

Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, indicated at the press conference at the White House that the person who died did not have any link to foreign travel. The death comes soon after U.S. health officials began warning the public that the coronavirus now appears to be spreading within the country from person to person independent of travel to affected areas around the world. The CDC acknowledged three such cases, known as community spread, in the U.S. late Friday night.

Speaking at Saturday afternoon's press conference, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told the public to brace themselves for more cases in the country. Redfield also said to expect more cases, describing them as likely to occur in "clusters" in the days ahead.

"You should not be surprised by that," Fauci said. "That is something that is anticipated when you get community spread."

The new cases bring the total number of confirmed cases within the United States to more than 60, though 44 of those cases originated aboard the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship and three other cases involve people who were brought back from Wuhan, China, where the global outbreak began. Excluding those who were aboard the cruise ship or brought back from China, President Trump said 22 patients within the U.S. have the coronavirus, four of whom are "very ill." Another 15 are either fully recovered or are "well on their way," according to the president.

"So healthy people, if you're healthy, you will probably go through a process and you'll be fine," Trump said. "There's no reason to panic at all."

Trump said the person who died in Washington state was a woman in her 50s; Washington state health officials later said the person was actually a man in his 50s.

The novel coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, including a massive surge in South Korea, where more than 800 new cases were confirmed between Friday and Saturday and more than 3,000 people are now confirmed to have the virus. The South Korean government has urged its citizens to stay indoors.

Though the vast majority of the more than 85,000 confirmed cases have occurred in China where the outbreak began. The resulting disease, COVID-19, is now in at least 57 countries and on every continent excluding Antarctica, according to the World Health Organization.

The confirmation of these new cases may actually be somewhat delayed, in part because there was an initial backlog in testing for the virus within the U.S. A problem with the test kits that the CDC distributed across the country required most testing to happen at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta. Federal health officials now say they have resolved the issue and are now working to distribute new test kits across the country.

Additionally, the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif., where one of the unexplained cases is being treated, says that patient didn't meet the CDC's threshold to approve a coronavirus test at first and so diagnosis was delayed for days. The CDC defended that delay, saying CDC guidelines were broad for travelers but not for people within the U.S.

Meanwhile, 124 health care workers who were likely exposed to the virus at that same UC Davis medical center were sent home and told by the hospital to quarantine themselves. The workers, who have complied with the order and are being paid, view the hospital's actions as a system failure, according to a report by KQED.

In total, more than 2,800 people worldwide have died from the virus so far, mostly in China, where the death rate is estimated to be around 2 percent, much lower than the death rates for previous coronavirus outbreaks like SARS or MERS, which had death rates of 10% and 34% respectively. The death rate of this new coronavirus could also be lower than it appears if mild cases are not being reported.

Despite what could be the start of community spread, people in the U.S. do not need to change their day-to-day habits, according to Redfield.

"The country as a whole ... still remains at low risk," Fauci said. "But when we say that, we want to underscore that this is an evolving situation."

Health officials maintain that among the best ways to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus are the same as those to prevent the seasonal flu: Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching your face, and stay home when feeling sick.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.