Public Risk for Coronavirus Remains Low, CDC Director Tells Congress

WASHINGTON (CN) — The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress on Thursday the risk of the coronavirus to the American public remains low, though the agency is expecting to see additional cases in the United States.

“Right now, at this stage – and I’ve said this and I continue to say it – the risk to the American public is low,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said. “We have an aggressive containment strategy that really has worked up to this time.”

This undated photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC’s laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP)

More than 82,000 people have contracted the virus across 47 countries, with more than 2,800 reported deaths. Most of the cases and deaths are concentrated in China, where the virus emerged. The United States has 60 cases but no reported deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

That includes one person in California who contracted the virus without traveling to an area where an outbreak has started or having close contact with an infected person. The CDC is investigating the case, which would be the first in the United States where the patient contracted the virus through exposure in the community.

The patient was not tested for coronavirus for several days after arriving for treatment because she did not meet the conditions the CDC mandated for testing. Redfield said the CDC has since loosened the requirements for testing patients who are suspected of having coronavirus.

Of the U.S. cases, 45 involved people who were either in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, or aboard a cruise ship with passengers who were diagnosed with the virus.

In testimony before Congress on Thursday, Redfield urged calm from the public, saying the U.S. response has been effective to this point in containing the spread of the virus and that the National Institutes of Health is working “very aggressively” on a vaccine. Still, he said a vaccine for coronavirus is still a year to 18 months away in the best case.

Looking ahead to a potential spread of the virus, Redfield said the U.S. health system is better positioned to handle an outbreak than the region of China where the outbreak began, meaning the mortality rate from the virus should be lower in the United States than is currently reported.

He said while people should take basic preventative steps like washing their hands, they should not stock up on masks, which he said should be left for nurses and doctors caring for patients infected with coronavirus.

While the hearing was underway, the Washington Post reported a whistleblower at the Department of Health and Human Services has filed a complaint claiming the agency did not give proper training or equipment to employees sent to receive Americans who were evacuated from China in the early stages of the outbreak.

Asked about the report at the hearing, State Department health official William Walters, who worked on the evacuations, denied the claim.

“I can say unequivocally that everyone involved with the evacuations was appropriately equipped and trained,” Walters, who serves as executive director and managing director for operational medicine at the State Department, said.

The burgeoning global health crisis has snapped Washington’s response into focus and inflamed partisan tensions over the White House’s plans to combat the spread of the virus.

The White House has requested $2.5 billion from Congress to fund response efforts, half of which would come from authority to move money from other initiatives like the response to the Ebola outbreak in Congo. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has blasted the request as inadequate and proposed an $8.5 billion package instead.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that congressional negotiators are “coming close” to a bipartisan spending agreement and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he is hopeful the Senate will be able to take up a package within the next two weeks.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday tapped Vice President Mike Pence to head the administration’s coronavirus response. On Thursday, Pence appointed Ambassador Debbie Birx to serve as the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

A longtime public health official, Birx currently works as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator and the U.S. special representative for global health diplomacy.

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