Mike Pence, the US vice-president, said 3,500 people on board the Grand Princess cruise ship in limbo off the coast of California would be tested for the coronavirus after 19 crew members and two passengers contracted the disease, as he warned older Americans in poor health to be cautious about travel.
Mr Pence made the remarks at a White House press briefing on Friday evening, as cases of coronavirus in the US rose above 300, with 15 deaths, adding pressure on Donald Trump’s administration to step up its response.
The fate of the Grand Princess, which had travelled to Mexico and back to northern California, had been in question in recent days as US authorities were refusing to let it dock in American ports because of the suspected cases of coronavirus on board.
But Mr Pence said the ship would be allowed to enter a non-commercial port at the weekend to test everyone on board. “Those that need to be quarantined will be quarantined, those that require additional medical attention will receive it,” Mr Pence said, praising the US Coast Guard for allowing the testing of 46 people on board by sending the kits via helicopter.
Just before Mr Pence made his remarks, Mr Trump, on a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, suggested he would have rather held the ship at sea.
“I have great experts including the vice-president . . . They would rather have the people come off,” Mr Trump said. “I don’t need the numbers to double because of one ship,” he added.
Mr Pence, who is travelling to Florida in the coming days to meet cruise ship executives, said the sector posed particular challenges in terms of containing the disease. Forty-six cases of coronavirus in the US are from passengers who were travelling on another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, in recent weeks. The vice-president said elderly Americans with existing medical problems, who are disproportionately suffering and dying because of the coronavirus, should be especially wary of any kind of travel during the outbreak.
“It is a good time for any American, by however they define it, and has a serious underlying health condition, to think carefully about travelling,” Mr Pence said.
As the outbreak has spread, the Trump administration has faced mounting criticism for being too slow in rolling out coronavirus testing capabilities across the country, preventing an accurate count of people diagnosed with the disease. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, called the federal response “absurd and nonsensical” on Friday as he attacked the “tardy fashion” with which tests were available to local health authorities.
US officials have defended their approach saying that they had sent out sufficient test kits to state authorities and had enlisted private labs to widen testing even further. “We have the testing necessary to be able to provide the tests to all the states that have requested it,” Mr Pence said.
“Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” Mr Trump added in Georgia, despite a groundswell of complaints from patients, doctors and other officials around the country complaining of difficulty in securing a diagnosis.
One of the labs that has been ramping up testing is at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, which has emerged as one of the main hubs of coronavirus in the US. After testing 400 people, the UW virology lab said it was getting “a consistent positivity rate of 5-7 per cent among specimens”, suggesting that the disease had expanded fairly widely in the northwestern continental US city.
“Now that they have a higher throughput lab operating in Seattle and testing for novel #coronavirus, they are getting positive hits. There has been concern for weeks that Seattle has a large, expanding outbreak,” tweeted Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner now at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.
The coronavirus outbreak has raised fears about the US economic outlook this week, causing big gyrations in financial markets and prompting the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates by 50 basis points in an emergency move on Tuesday.
But after a strong jobs report suggesting the US economy was in good shape before the US outbreak in February, Larry Kudlow, the director of the White House National Economic Council, said the administration was considering a “micro approach” to any fiscal stimulus, involving helping struggling sectors such as airlines, rather than a large-scale package.
“We would like to be targeted and timely, not the gigantic macroeconomic fix. I think that’s the issue. And we really have to wait for more information, almost on a day-by-day basis, before we can take action,” Mr Kudlow said.
The US president even suggested the coronavirus outbreak could be economically beneficial by forcing Americans to take holidays domestically. “We’re going to have Americans staying home instead of going and spending the money in other countries,” he said.