The White House is clamping down on communication issued from government health officials and scientists about the spread of coronavirus following a decision by President Trump to put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the U.S. task force addressing the public health threat, according to a report in the New York Times.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notably failed to hold a telephone press briefing despite the fact that California has reported a confirmed case where the infected person who did not have any exposure to someone known to have the virus and who did not travel to any of the countries where there has been an outbreak.
The circumstances led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a statement late Wednesday saying that it could be the first instance of "community spread," in which the source of infection is unknown.
“At this point, the patient’s exposure is unknown,” the CDC statement said. "It’s also possible, however, that the patient may have been exposed to a returned traveler who was infected."
The statement was issued after Trump held a press conference saying that the situation was "under control" and downplayed the impact the virus would have on Americans.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said he has never been aware of the CDC needing White House approval to issue press releases or speak with the public.
"This is worrisome," he said, adding, "It's entirely inappropriate."
He said he was hopeful it would be rescinded. "Because it is really inconsistent with how we should be dealing with a public health crisis."
The U.S. has 60 known cases of coronavirus, 42 of which were passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the CDC told Gothamist that there were no immediate plans for a press briefing and said there was a backlog of media inquiries. A request Gothamist sent on Tuesday has still not been answered.
A potential lack of information from the nation's health protection agency would mean more reliance on state and local health authorities, who have been in regular communication with CDC officials. Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's health commissioner, was among several state representatives who met with CDC staffers in Washington D.C. on Tuesday about coronavirus preparations.
New York City still does not have any confirmed cases of the disease, but Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked the CDC to expand its airport screenings to include other impacted countries beyond China, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated. The mayor has also asked that the CDC, which is handling all of the testing for suspected cases in New York, to loosen its testing criteria so that patients from affected countries like South Korea, Italy and Japan may also be tested [See update below]. The individual in California was reportedly not tested for days because of the strict standards.
"It’s inevitable that it will get here," Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the city's health commissioner, told WNYC's Brian Lehrer on Thursday.
In the absence of confirmed cases, the city has been recommending that people practice good hygiene, including washing their hands for 20 seconds and staying home from work if they feel unwell. Barbot said those who suspect that they might have the virus should call their doctor first rather then rush to an office where they might risk exposure to others.
Because of a flaw with CDC's testing kits, New York City still does not have the ability to test for the virus at the city's public health lab. Barbot said the CDC has said it is altering the test but has not given local health authorities a timeline on when they can expect to receive another test kit.
The potential for a major outbreak in New York City has raised the question of school closures, a practice that was used during the 2009 swine flu epidemic and which would be disruptive to thousands of families.
Asked about the possibility, Barbot said she did not anticipate that the city would close schools. "We have a lot of potential scenarios in our back pocket but that's not one we would lead with," she said.
UPDATE: The CDC has revised its list of affected countries that meet the criteria for testing to include Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea. "In consultation with public health departments, patients should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine the need for testing," the website states.