Facing a growing threat from the global spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio is urging the federal government to expand airport screenings to include travelers from countries outside of China where the disease has since surfaced in large outbreaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently screening passengers from China at 20 airports across the United States, including John F. Kennedy International Airport. During a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the city's preparation for an outbreak, de Blasio called on the CDC to also monitor the health of visitors from Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.
"If these steps are taken, it will help us to respond more quickly and really limit the spread of this epidemic," the mayor said.
To date, there have been no confirmed infections in New York. Within the five boroughs, there have been seven people suspected of having the disease, all of whom have tested negative.
De Blasio also said there were 1,200 beds at hospitals around the city identified for possible use by patients with severe cases.
The press briefing came one day after the CDC delivered its most urgent warning yet about the viral contagion, which has infected more than 81,000 people and resulted in at least 2,770 deaths. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
The message came as somewhat of a jolt given the prior weeks of assurances from health officials that the virus did not pose an immediate threat. There are currently 59 confirmed cases in the United States, 42 of which were passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The luxury liner had been put on a two-week quarantine earlier this month off the coast of Japan amid a large outbreak.
Adding to public confusion, President Donald Trump has said that the coronavirus situation was "under control" in the U.S. (Dr. Messonnier is now being attacked for issuing her urgent warning by recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and longtime bigot Rush Limbaugh, among others.)
Trump is expected to hold a press conference with CDC officials at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Prior to de Blasio's statements, Governor Andrew Cuomo gave his own briefing on the situation. "It is highly probable that you’ll see a continuing spread of this virus," Cuomo said, adding, "No one should be surprised when we have positive cases in New York."
The governor said he was planning to send an emergency supplemental appropriations bill to the legislature next week asking for an additional $40 million for the state Department of Health. The money would be for equipment such as masks and other protective gear for health care workers. Cuomo said the current supply was ample, but that the state wanted to "err on the side of caution."
Cuomo stressed that the state had undergone similar preparations for public health emergencies in the past: the Ebola virus, SARS, Zika, H1N1 (also known as "swine flu"), and Legionnaires disease. Going forward, he said the state Department of Health would be coordinating with local agencies to develop a standard protocol to treat a possible outbreak.
In a sign of coordination with federal health officials, Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's health commissioner, was among several state representatives in Washington D.C. on Tuesday meeting with CDC staffers about how to coordinate a plan for the looming public health threat.
In contrast to de Blasio, Cuomo brushed off a question about the CDC's screenings of travelers at airports, saying that it was a federal matter. "I don't do screenings," he said.
There was also a disconnect between the city and state on the issue of masks. During the press conference, Zucker said the state had "millions" of masks in stock. But de Blasio said the city was seeking federal assistance to get 300,000 masks it requested. The city, he said, was currently on a waiting list.
Both the mayor and governor said they were pushing the CDC to enable testing of the coronavirus at a local level. The state would like to use the Albany-based Wadsworth Center as a testing laboratory, while the mayor referred to several advanced facilities in New York City.
The CDC has developed a diagnostic test for outside labs to use. However, due to a flaw with several test kits the agency shipped out earlier this month, the process has been delayed. All testing for suspected cases in New York are currently being sent to the CDC, which is based in Atlanta. Results have typically taken between 36 to 48 hours.
According to Cuomo, the state is currently waiting on one pending test, from a person in Nassau County.
Since January, when suspected cases began emerging, both state and city health officials urged New Yorkers to take precautions, including advising people who had traveled to China or visited those who had been there to see a doctor if they felt unwell.
On Wednesday, they reiterated that advice. Symptoms of the coronavirus are similar to the flu. They include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The incubation period is said to be between 2 to 14 days.
"Get tested immediately," de Blasio said. "That is the ballgame."
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