Mike Pence, the US vice-president, has authorised state health officials to close schools if necessary to contain the coronavirus, as the Trump administration responds to fears that the outbreak is spreading across America, particularly on the west coast.
“I think the president would respect any decisions that are made at the state and local level,” Mr Pence, who was put in charge of Washington’s response to coronavirus last week, said in an interview with NBC on Sunday.
“But other than in areas where there are individuals that have been infected with the coronavirus, people need to understand that for the average American, the risk does remain low.”
Mr Pence’s comments came a day after Donald Trump, the US president, approved new travel restrictions connected to countries where the disease has spread rapidly. This included a ban on entry for any foreign national who recently visited Iran, and a request for US citizens not to visit regions of Italy and South Korea hit hard by coronavirus.
Widespread moves in the US to shutter schools would follow school closures introduced in Japan, as well as parts of Italy, in addition to parts of China that were first hit by the virus.
According to US health authorities, more than 70 people have contracted coronavirus in the country, including 47 who were brought to America for treatment from China and the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Over the weekend, new cases of coronavirus were recorded in Chicago, Illinois, Rhode Island and Washington state which, along with northern California, are the main hubs of disease in the US for now.
It was in King County, which includes Seattle, that the first US patient, a male in his 50s, died from the disease on Friday, triggering concerns that coronavirus was spreading in the area, including a local nursing home. A second patient, a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions, died on Sunday night. Health officials said three additional patients were in critical condition due to coronavirus — all of them residents of the same nursing home facility in Kirkland, Washington, a Seattle suburb.
“Right now there’s a large investigation going on in the nursing home, the hospital, contact tracing to try to determine where that disease was introduced and how it might have spread,” Alex Azar, the US health secretary, said on Fox News.
“We’ve been very clear from the outset we’re going to have more cases here in the United States in spite of the president’s aggressive efforts at containment. We’ll see more cases. We’ll see some forms of community spreading,” Mr Azar said.
US health officials have been ramping up testing in many states in order to get a firmer view of the extent of the spread of coronavirus, and boosted government purchases of masks and respirators to supply hospitals and doctors on the front lines of the response.
Mr Trump and his administration have been trying to fend off criticism from health experts and Democratic lawmakers that they have downplayed the crisis for political reasons, particularly after the US president repeatedly called the disease a “hoax” perpetrated by his political opponents to damage him. He then said that he was referring to Democrats’ criticism of his response, not to the disease itself.
“This is a time for honest leadership that respects science, that draws on serious experts, and that delivers real results,” Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said on Saturday night at a rally in Texas. “This is both a public health crisis and a potential economic crisis, not just here in the US, but worldwide,” she said.
Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and media owner who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was set to air a new television ad on Sunday night presenting himself as a more responsible manager of the coronavirus response.
“At times like this, it is the job of the president to reassure the public that he or she is taking all the steps necessary to protect the health and wellbeing of every citizen,” Mr Bloomberg was poised to say, according to a preview of the ad. “The public wants to know their leader is trained, informed and respected.”