Whistleblower Complaint Filed, California Case Spurs Changes in CDC Coronavirus Testing Efforts

FRIDAY, Feb. 28, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Just how prepared the United States is to quell an outbreak of coronavirus on American soil came into question on Thursday, as federal officials broadened guidelines for testing and a whistleblower complaint was filed by a high-ranking U.S. health official.

The complaint claimed some federal health workers had been allowed to interact with quarantined Americans without proper training or protective gear.

Another issue emerged after the first U.S. case of coronavirus of an unknown origin surfaced in northern California on Wednesday. State officials there scrambled to track down anyone who might have come into contact with the woman, who arrived at UC Davis Medical Center on Feb. 19 from another hospital on ventilator support.

State and federal officials disagree on how long it took to get approval to test the woman, the Associated Press reported. But one hospital memo claims that hospital officials couldn’t get approval to test the woman for four days because she didn’t meet strict testing criteria. Those criteria included travel to China or exposure to someone who had traveled to China.

The case is suspected to be the first instance of community spread of the virus in the United States.

“This was a clear gap in our preparedness, and the virus went right through the gap,” Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health, told the AP.

So, late Thursday, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention moved to close that “preparedness gap” by broadening its testing guidelines. Adding to the problem, state and local health officials say they don’t have enough testing kits, as the first batch the CDC sent out to state and local health departments were flawed, and new ones are still being manufactured.

“As I said before, this has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a Friday media briefing.

“Right now, labs can start testing with existing CDC test kits. States that were able to validate their kits should continue to test in this manner,” she said. “States that were able to validate only two components specific to the novel coronavirus can test using only those two, using revised instructions. We’ve established that the third component, which was the cause of the inconclusive result, can be excluded from testing without affecting accuracy.”

“This will increase the testing capacity of state and local health departments. All positive test results will continue to be confirmed by [the] CDC for some time,” Messonnier added. “Additionally, [the] CDC has manufactured brand new test kits that will only include the two components that are specific to the novel coronavirus.”

In Thursday’s whistleblower complaint, a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services said workers from the agency were not tested after being exposed to quarantined evacuees without full protective gear. Some of those workers flew back home on commercial airlines, the complaint said.

Meanwhile, schools across America are canceling trips abroad and preparing online courses as they brace for the possibility that coronavirus could spread into their communities, the AP reported. Many are also preparing for possible school closures that could stretch for weeks or longer.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the U.S. response to a potential coronavirus pandemic.

There have now been 60 coronavirus cases confirmed in the United States. Nearly all were contracted abroad through travel, and all having been placed under strict quarantine.

Internationally, hopes of containing the coronavirus are fading fast, as stock markets around the world plummeted on Thursday and a run on face masks threatened to trigger a shortage.

The total number of cases globally has now passed 83,000 and nearly 3,000 have died.

South Korea and Iran are each battling major outbreaks of COVID-19. In Europe, a similar fight is raging in Italy, even as new cases were recorded in Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece and Spain, The New York Times reported. Most of those cases have been tied to travel to Italy, which is struggling to contain an outbreak that has been centered in the northern part of the country. In Japan, a state of emergency was declared Friday in a northern province because of the growing number of coronavirus cases there, the AP reported.

On Wednesday, Brazil announced that it had identified the first case of COVID-19 in Latin America. That means there are now cases on all continents except Antarctica.

In Wednesday’s press conference in which Trump appointed Pence to head the U.S. response to coronavirus Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, reminded Americans that the best way to protect themselves and others is to take the same sort of precautions as they would during cold and flu season.

“It’s spread through coughs and sneezes, and so those everyday sensible measures we tell people to do every year with the flu are important here — covering your cough, staying home when you’re sick and washing your hands,” Schuchat said. “Tried and true, not very exciting measures, but really important ways you can prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.”

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.

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