The coronavirus that emerged in China late last year has now been detected in at least 56 nations. The rapid spread drove down stock markets.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Several more unexplained cases of the new coronavirus have appeared on the West Coast. It’s raised concerns that COVID-19 is spreading in ways that are hard to control. There are new cases in Washington state, Oregon and California. And the disease continues around the globe. The World Health Organization now reports cases in at least 56 countries. Joined now with the latest by NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, thanks for being with us.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Sure. Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: First, please bring us up to date on these new cases in the U.S.
HARRIS: Yeah, well, it’s been quite a week. Earlier this week, there was a case reported in Solano County, Calif. That’s sort of midway between Sacramento and San Francisco. And that’s raising concerns because that woman had never really come in contact with anybody who they knew had been exposed to the coronavirus. She hadn’t traveled to China. She’s now in the hospital, and people are really concerned about that. The CDC sent, like, 10 additional investigators out there to figure that out. But just as that story was starting to unfold late yesterday, California authorities talked about another presumptive case in San Jose, which is at the south end of San Francisco Bay – or in San Jose area, I should say. Then health departments in Washington and Oregon chimed in in the wee hours. Oregon said there was an adult in Washington County, Ore., who fell sick about 10 days ago and was tentatively diagnosed just yesterday with the coronavirus. And there are two cases in Washington. One, a woman who traveled in South Korea, so that’s not too surprising. But the other, a person who is a high school student in Snohomish County, which you may recall – seems like a long time ago now – was the site of the very first case identified in the United States.
SIMON: Richard, all of that seems like a serious new turn of events. What’s going on?
HARRIS: It could, indeed, be quite serious. Community spread is troublesome. To date, all the other travelers have been pretty well-known. They’ve either been travelers to China or Japan on that cruise ship or their spouses. Health officials can track folks in those circumstances because they can figure out who they’ve got – been in touch with and keep following up and make sure those people are keeping track of their own health and so on. But when cases start popping up at seeming random moments, that control method gets increasingly problematic. So question is, is this really the first sign of things going out of control? Or there’s also a possibility that just there has been a long delay in testing. And now that states are starting to do testing, we’re all of a sudden seeing a burst in new cases.
SIMON: And what’s behind the holdup in testing here in the U.S.?
HARRIS: Yeah, well, tests are still officially run in Atlanta, which is why these are still presumptive tests. But the CDC produced some test kits some weeks ago. And they sent them out to the states, but they didn’t work. And so the states said, we’re not going to run them until you sort it out. CDC has taken a long time to figure out what exactly has been wrong with the kits they originally sent out. And they finally said, OK. We have the green light. You can go ahead and use those kits. They sent out new batches and so on. And so that’s why we’re seeing tests now. So unfortunately, that delay also means that there’s been very little testing over the past several weeks beyond highly suspected cases. And so that’s maybe why we’re starting to see this outburst right now.
SIMON: U.S. now has more than 60 cases of the coronavirus. Could you put that into perspective for us?
HARRIS: Well, clearly, it’s nowhere as bad as in China. And we’ve been seeing the last couple of weeks these other areas of outbreak like South Korea, Iran and Italy, where cases are really rapidly multiplying. Since most cases here are still pretty well understood – most are, in fact, off the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was in Japan for a while. It’s too early to panic, clearly, but, you know, it is a concern. And I think we’ll learn a lot more as testing ramps up in the next week or two, really, what the dimensions of this are here.
SIMON: So we keep hearing, wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Any other steps that people can take?
HARRIS: Yeah, well, certainly, if you’re sick, stay at home. And if you are in contact with a sick person or concerned about that, keep your distance. Six feet is a good distance. Think of this as the flu. It essentially spreads the same way. And treat it appropriately.
SIMON: When the CDC says be prepared, what does that entail?
HARRIS: Well, at this point, it’s institutions, really, who need to be kicking into high gear. We’ve been hearing all week from companies about their plans. They’re canceling work trips. They’re figuring out who can work from home. They’re putting out their policies. One of the biggest challenges I think we’re going to face collectively is individual school districts may decide to close, maybe for weeks and weeks. And that’s a huge issue for parents and also for their employees to figure out. So I think we have to start thinking about, you know, what life would look like if schools closed. That’s a big one.
SIMON: NPR’s Richard Harris, thanks so much.
HARRIS: My pleasure, Scott.
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