Two of President Donald Trump’s top aides each described the coronavirus outbreak as “contained” on Friday morning, even as the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. exceeded 200 and test kits remained in short supply.
“It is being contained,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters, challenging a questioner who suggested it isn’t. “Are you a doctor aware of it not being contained?”
The number of cases of the virus in the U.S. has more than doubled since Monday, to 240, Johns Hopkins University reported on Friday. There are hotspots in Santa Clara, California; outside Seattle; and in Westchester County, New York. There have been 14 deaths, most of them in King County, Washington, outside Seattle.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Friday there are 33 cases in his state, an increase of 11 from Thursday.
Tallying the number of active U.S. cases is impossible at the moment because many people may be sick but undiagnosed, owing in part to a shortage of test kits. As those kits are distributed, health officials expect the numbers of confirmed cases to rise.
The Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx, said on Thursday: “We will see more positive tests.”
While Birx didn’t address whether the outbreak had been “contained,” Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, echoed Conway. He said in a CNBC interview on Friday that the outbreak “looks relatively contained,” adding that “the vast majority of Americans are not at risk for this virus.”
“It can’t be air-tight but we are, you know, you look at the numbers here and I know there are things in front of us, you know, by itself more testing is going to uncover more cases,” he said. “But in a relative sense relative to our population, relative to ordinary flus — I don’t want to downgrade this thing, this can be human tragedy for individuals who suffer or Lord knows who die, I have said that from day one — I think it is relatively contained.”
Experts in infections, outbreaks and virology disagreed with the contention that the virus has been contained and with near unanimity say they expect significantly more cases in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It’s likely that 20% to 60% of people worldwide, including in the U.S., will eventually contract the virus, said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics and one of the foremost infectious disease modelers in the U.S. Humanity has no natural immunity or protection against the virus, which is spreading so efficiently that it may be difficult to stop, he said.
Already in the U.S. there are probably hundreds or thousands of people who are infected and don’t realize it, Lipsitch said.
The Johns Hopkins count, based on current reports by state and local authorities, is well ahead of the official count of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 164 cases and 11 deaths in 19 states on Friday, up from 99 cases, 10 deaths and 13 states on Thursday. The CDC updates its count at noon weekdays based on figures obtained as of 4 p.m. the day before.
State governors and public health authorities have complained that they have insufficient supplies of test kits to diagnose the disease, after a kit the CDC initially distributed last month turned out to be defective. The Trump administration has raced to issue a better kit, as well as to authorize private laboratories to make their own, but they remain in short supply.
For example, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday that California — population 40 million — has the capacity to test about 7,400 people through the weekend.
The Atlantic magazine reported Friday morning that based on a survey of public health agencies in every state, it could only count 1,895 Americans that have been tested for the virus. About 10% of them have tested positive, the magazine said.
A CDC spokeswoman didn’t respond to a question about the Atlantic report and how many tests had been completed. A spokeswoman for Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the government’s response to the outbreak, also didn’t respond.
Pence said Thursday that the CDC is “prioritizing” tests for Washington and California and that by the end of next week enough kits will be distributed to test about 1.2 million Americans.
“While we’re meeting the demand of cases we know about today, we still have a ways to go to ensure the tests are available for any future cases,” Pence said in a news conference with Washington Governor Jay Inslee. “By the end of next week, another 4 million tests will be available. But it’s still just a beginning.”
But Conway said that there are “plenty” of test kits available, while also acknowledging that the disease may be spreading via people who suffer only mild or no symptoms and thus won’t be tested.
“People are asymptomatic and don’t know they have it,” Conway said.
— With assistance by Michelle Fay Cortez
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