WASHINGTON – In the wake of three Maryland residents testing positive for coronavirus, officials sought to calm the public Friday as test kits were delivered across the country and more people in the state were being tested for possible exposure.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the state “immediately launched a full and exhaustive investigation to determine all of the recent interactions” of the three people who tested positive. In a press briefing, the governor offered new details about the three victims’ activities and possible contact with others, including in a Rockville retirement community.
“There are at least two instances of public interaction which are concerning, and that we believe necessitate public notification,” Hogan said.
After returning from an Egyptian cruise on Feb. 20, “one of the individuals attended an event in the Philadelphia area, where they were in contact with a group of children and staff of a local school district,” Hogan said.
Health officials in Pennsylvania were subsequently notified and the Central Bucks County School District decided to close five schools Friday “out of an abundance of caution,” the governor said.
Another of the Maryland patients attended an event of about 70 to 100 people on Feb. 29 at a retirement community called the Village of Rockville.
“Due to the scale of that gathering, we are urging anyone who attended (the) event… to immediately contact your health care provider,” Hogan said.
Hogan announced that all three Maryland cases contracted the virus aboard the M.S. Asara, an Egyptian cruise vessel on the Nile River. He said 12 others aboard the Asara tested positive for coronavirus and will be in quarantine for two weeks.
“We are providing these updates not to unnecessarily raise alarm, but in the interest of full transparency and out of an abundance of caution,” Hogan said. “We are committed to doing everything in our power to contain this virus and to limit its spread in our state. This is exactly what our state has been actively preparing for for many weeks.”
Seven additional Maryland residents tested for the virus have been confirmed negative for the virus as of Friday night, according to Hogan. As of now, 33 tests have come back negative, three returned positive results and eight are still pending. Test results typically take about 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Charles Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, called his agency’s current supply of test kits “adequate” to address current requests, adding that they will be ordering additional supplies early in the coming week.
Vice President Mike Pence revealed at a late afternoon White House press conference that among passengers and crew on the Grand Princess cruise ship, which has been held off the California coast since Wednesday, 19 crew and 2 passengers so far have tested positive for the virus.
“According to all the experts… the risk to the American public of contracting the coronavirus remains low,” Pence said during the press conference.
The ship will be brought into a non-commercial port over the weekend and medical protocols will be followed to deal with the more than 3,500 people on board.
Pence said he would be meeting with the cruise ship lines this weekend, but urged elderly people to weigh the safety of taking cruises at this time.
President Donald Trump made his second visit this week to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, claiming that the tests are “perfect” and are available to everybody that needs them.
“We’ve done an incredible job in a very condensed period of time,” Trump said of the country’s handling of the virus during his visit.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters with the president at the CDC that 700,000 tests had been shipped so far this week and that 4 million tests would be ready by the end of next week.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said after a tour of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, Friday that initial trials of a coronavirus vaccine involving about 40 healthy individuals will begin in Washington state next week.
“That will take two to three months,” he told reporters. But health experts still believe it may take up to a year or a year and a half to develop a vaccine, Van Hollen said.
“It’s going to take time,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who, with Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Kensington, also visited the NIH. “There’s a lot of things going on to try to keep people safe.”
Maryland received $500 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help the state deal with the coronavirus.
All three Maryland cases are concentrated in Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington which is home to about 1 million Marylanders. Those affected are a couple in their 70s and an unrelated woman in her 50s.
The individuals, who were recently abroad, are now in self-quarantine and in good condition, Hogan said.
Hogan declared a state of emergency Thursday night in an effort to receive necessary funding to deal with the new cases and acquire more tests.
An emergency measure was passed by the state Senate Friday – the House is expected to vote on it soon – that would allow the governor to transfer $50 million from a “rainy day fund” into efforts to fight the virus.
While the global number of coronavirus cases nears 100,000, the number of cases in the United States has surpassed 250, according to the New York Times.
Despite this, Pence said Thursday the government would not be able to meet its goal of sending out one million test kits this week. The number is believed to be closer to 75,000. The death toll in the U.S. is currently 14.
“We continue to call on countries to find, test, isolate and care for every case,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing Friday.
With the number of people affected by the virus and the death toll rising around the country, officials are working to try to ease people’s minds and ensure they are prepared.
Within the last three months “all Maryland state agencies have taken every precaution to prepare and mobilize resources,” Maryland Secretary of Health Robert Neall said.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and all levels of government are working together to address this public health threat and provide the most up-to-date information to Marylanders,” Hogan tweeted Friday afternoon before a press conference.
Attorney General Brian Frosh advised Maryland residents in a press release to be wary of virus-related scams, some of which may come in the form of emails, texts and posts that request personal information or money from users. There are not yet any vaccines or treatments for coronavirus, he emphasized.
“Scammers are taking advantage of people’s fear of getting sick from COVID-19. Consumers can avoid being cheated by understanding how these thieves are trying to steal their personal information and money,” Frosh said.
Frosh urged Marylanders not to click on suspicious links or donate money to just anyone claiming to be raising money to help victims or to find a cure.
A survey released Thursday by National Nurses United found that a majority of U.S. hospitals and medical facilities did not have plans or procedures in place to handle coronavirus cases.
The nurses’ group urged the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue emergency standards aimed at protecting the public, patients, doctors and nurses.
“Nurses are confident we can care for COVID-19 patients, and even help stop the spread of this virus, IF we are given the protections and resources we need to do our jobs,” Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse and executive director of National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association, said in a statement.