White House expert warns on ‘community spread’ of coronavirus
A leading White House coronavirus expert warned on Sunday that the rising number of cases in the US was making it harder to determine how people were contracting the virus, intensifying concern over people attending large events around the country.
Anthony Fauci, the widely respected head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said authorities were “getting a better sense” of the scope of the coronavirus outbreak in the US. But he added that he was worried about the growing incidence of “community spread” — where the source of the virus is unknown.
“We’re getting a better sense [of the scope] as the days go by. Unfortunately, that better sense is not encouraging because we’re seeing community spread,” Mr Fauci told NBC News. “Whenever you see ‘community spread’, you can do contact tracing, but as more communities spread it, it becomes logistically more difficult.”
His comments were made one day after the District of Columbia and neighbouring Virginia announced their first cases, along with Kansas and Missouri.
Maryland declared a state of emergency last week after three people who had travelled overseas tested positive. On Saturday, the state announced two new cases, including one that appeared to be “community spread”. One of the two cases in Washington DC was a man who had no apparent contact with other victims of the virus.
Andrew Cuomo, New York governor, declared a state of emergency on Saturday after the number of cases in the state rose to 76, out of the more than 300 across the US. Oregon followed on Sunday after the number of known cases in the state doubled to 14
“If it continues to spread we’re going to have to take drastic containment measures which means you basically shut down everything, which is what China did,” Mr Cuomo told CNN. That’s bad for the economy, bad for business, bad for society.”
Bill de Blasio, New York City mayor, said the number of cases in the city would probably rise sharply from the current level of 13 people “due to community spread”.
“At some point, we could easily be hundreds of cases,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
The surge in cases comes amid criticism of how the Trump administration is handling the outbreak, and particularly at how Donald Trump has discussed the outbreak publicly.
Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, said that while the administration was doing a “pretty good job”, he was worried by Mr Trump’s rhetoric. “Has the president been perfect in his communication? I would say he hasn’t communicated the way I would.”
Mr Trump on Sunday said his team had a “perfectly co-ordinated and fine-tuned plan” and that the “Fake News Media is doing everything possible to make us look bad”.
On Saturday, Mr Trump said he was “not concerned at all” that several cases had been identified around the US capital. He also said he would continue to hold rallies as he campaigned for re-election.
Speaking to NBC, Mr Fauci said that if the number of “community spread” cases increases, it would make mass events a bigger risk.
“I think you need to seriously look at anything that’s a large gathering,” said Mr Fauci, who urged the elderly to avoid taking flights and not to travel on cruise ships.
Mr Fauci said that while health authorities try to contain cases of coronavirus, they would start focusing more on ways to mitigate the spread, including what he described as “social distancing”.
“It’s common sense stuff. You don’t want to go to a massive gathering, particularly if you’re a vulnerable individual,” he said.
The warnings over big gatherings come as the Democratic presidential contenders, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, continue their campaigns. Asked by CNN if he would still hold rallies, Mr Sanders said: “We will not endanger the health of anybody . . . We are in constant contact with public health officials and getting their advice.”
A Biden campaign official said they were “following the guidance of state and federal experts” but that the campaign did not have any planned changes to its schedule.
Meanwhile, the Grand Princess, a cruise ship that had been prevented from docking in San Francisco because 21 crew and passengers had contracted the virus, is expected to enter Oakland port on Monday. The Associated Press said the captain had told the 3,500 passengers that the disembarkation process would take several days.
Earlier this week, Mr Trump said he wanted to prevent the ship from docking since he did not want an increase in the recorded number of people inside the US with the virus. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” Mr Trump said.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi