Tensions over how to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus escalated Tuesday in the United States 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 cases in the U.S. overall climbed past 100 scattered across at least 14 states, with 27 in Washington.
“What is happening now in the United States may be the beginning of what is happening abroad,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noting that in China older and sicker people are about twice as likely to become seriously ill as those who are younger and healthier.
In the nation’s capital, officials moved on a number of fronts.
The Federal Reserve announced the biggest interest-rate cut in over a decade to try to fend off damage to the U.S. economy from the factory shutdowns, travel restrictions and other disruptions caused around the globe by the outbreak. On Wall Street, stocks briefly rallied on the news, then slumped badly.
“We have seen a broader spread of the virus. So, we saw a risk to the economy and we chose to act,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said.
Also, the Food and Drug and Administration moved to ease a shortage of face masks by giving health care workers the OK to use an industrial type of respirator mask designed to protect construction workers from dust and debris.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers expressed skepticism about U.S. health officials’ claims that testing for the new virus should be widely available by the end of the week. Authorities have said labs across the country should have the capacity to run as many as 1 million tests by then.
But testing so far has faced delays and missteps, and “I’m hearing from health professionals that’s unrealistic,” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state said at a Senate hearing.
The chief of the 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. But health officials were careful about making hard promises.
“I am optimistic, but I want to remain humble,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC.
In Washington state, researchers believe the virus may have been circulating undetected for weeks. That has raised fears that there could be hundreds of undiagnosed cases in the area.
But 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.”
One lab was already testing for coronavirus in Washington state and a second was scheduled to begin doing so Tuesday.
Amid the rising fears, a school district north of Seattle closed for training on conducting remote lessons via computer in case schools have to be closed for an extended period, while a private school said it would conduct online-only classes through the end of March.
“We do not feel it is prudent to wait until there is a known case to take action,” the school, Eastside Prep in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, said on its website.
A Department of Homeland Security facility just south of Seattle instructed all its employees to work from home after a worker became ill after visiting the nursing home at the center of the outbreak.
Elsewhere around the world, the crisis continued to ebb in China, where hundreds of patients were released from hospitals and new infections dropped to just 125 on Tuesday, the lowest in several weeks. But the crisis seemed to shift westward, with alarmingly fast-growing clusters of infections and deaths in South Korea, Iran and Italy.
Worldwide, more than 92,000 people have been sickened and 3,100 have died, the vast majority of them in China.
“What China shows is that early containment and identification of cases can work, but we now need to implement that in other countries,” said Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an infectious-diseases expert at King’s College London.