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News >  Washington

Coronavirus was probably spreading for six weeks in Washington state, study says

UPDATED: Sun., March 1, 2020

A young fan makes use of a hand-sanitizing station at CenturyLink Field prior to an MLS soccer match between the Seattle Sounders and the Chicago Fire, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Seattle. A genetic study of the virus in a coronavirus patient in Western Washington shows similarities to that contracted by an early patient in the U.S., leading researchers to believe the COVID-19 disease has been spreading undetected for the past six weeks. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
A young fan makes use of a hand-sanitizing station at CenturyLink Field prior to an MLS soccer match between the Seattle Sounders and the Chicago Fire, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Seattle. A genetic study of the virus in a coronavirus patient in Western Washington shows similarities to that contracted by an early patient in the U.S., leading researchers to believe the COVID-19 disease has been spreading undetected for the past six weeks. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Katie Mettler, Alex Horton, Meryl Kornfield and Paul Schemm The Washington Post

The novel coronavirus has probably been spreading undetected for about six weeks in Washington, where the first U.S. death was reported this weekend. A genetic analysis of the virus from a newly diagnosed patient in Snohomish County closely matched that of a specimen from the first known coronavirus patient in the United States, who traveled from China in January.

The finding could have broad implications for the spread of the disease in the rest of the country.

Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, announced Saturday night on Twitter that an analysis of the virus specimen from a newly diagnosed patient in Snohomish County closely matched that of a specimen from a person who traveled from China in January and was the first known coronavirus case in the United States.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests these cases are linked through community transmission, Bedford wrote – and that this has been going on for weeks, with hundreds of infections likely.

“This strongly suggests that there has been cryptic transmission in Washington state for the past 6 weeks,” he wrote. “I believe we’re facing an already substantial outbreak in Washington State that was not detected until now due to narrow case definition requiring direct travel to China.”

The United States, Australia and Thailand each reported their first coronavirus-related deaths over the weekend, all in the span of about 12 hours. COVID-19 has killed patients on four continents, with the global death toll climbing toward 3,000.

The first U.S. death, in Washington, was a man in his 50s with underlying health conditions, officials said. The patient had no recent travel history or contact with people known to be infected, officials said.

Travel impacted, misinformation spreads

On Saturday, the Trump administration outlined new travel restrictions affecting Iran, Italy and South Korea in response to the outbreak, and President Donald Trump said he was considering further restrictions across the southern border.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar warned Sunday that more coronavirus infections will surface in the United States. He said they are watching for possible drug shortages from disruptions to the pharmaceutical supply chain in China.

After U.S. officials upgraded travel advisories over the weekend and urged Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Italy, two U.S. airlines have suspended their daily flights to Milan.

Delta announced Sunday it is temporarily stopping its service from New York’s JFK International Airport to Milan after Tuesday. The flights will resume May 1. American Airlines declared a similar stoppage Saturday, saying flights between Milan and airports in Miami and New York will be postponed through April 25.

Both airlines are offering customers an opportunity to rebook their flights or get a full refund.

Milan, a global fashion hub, is the capital of Italy’s Lombardy region, one of two regions in the northern part of the country that the U.S. State Department has told Americans to avoid. In Lombardy and the region of Veneto, the coronavirus is spreading rapidly and residents have been quarantined.

American, Delta and United Airlines have previously announced flight cancellations involving other high-risk countries as global health and government officials scramble to prevent the rapid spread of the novel virus.

New cases have been announced in the Middle East as governments there try to control the spread.

The Tokyo Marathon was eerily quiet on Saturday. The premier event expected 38,000 participants, but coronavirus fears prompted organizers to limit the field to only 200 people across all categories. Fans stayed home, too.

Misinformation about the disease is proving hard to contain. Roughly 2 million tweets peddled conspiracy theories about the coronavirus over the three-week period when the outbreak began to spread outside China, according to an unreleased report from an arm of the State Department.

New case in Rhode Island

The first presumptive positive case of the novel coronavirus in Rhode Island was announced Sunday by the state’s Health Department.

The patient is in his 40s and had traveled to Europe in mid-February, Gov. Gina Raimondo and Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott said at a news conference. The patient is being treated in a hospital after officials identified the case Saturday.

He had limited travel in Rhode Island since returning from Italy, France and Spain and had not returned to work since being abroad, according to the Health Department. Alexander-Scott said he may have come into close contact with about 40 people, whom the health department reached out to and who are quarantined and self-monitoring for symptoms for 14 days.

Since the patient’s symptoms first emerged, his family has been self-quarantined. Alexander-Scott didn’t answer a reporter’s question about whether the family also had traveled with him.

Presumptive positive cases must be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that “might change in the coming days,” according to a statement from the Health Department. Rhode Island had expedited the final steps of implementation to run the test that identified this case.

Earlier this week, Rhode Island announced 28 people were being monitored. On Sunday, Alexander-Scott said the patient was not one of those 28.

While the state has enough tests, it is testing only those people who are exhibiting symptoms, she said.

“We want to be judicious,” Alexander-Scott said.

Raimondo said she had not been in touch with Vice President Mike Pence, who was tapped to oversee the federal government’s response to the coronavirus, but that her office was in communication with the White House. She said she has also talked to the state’s congressional delegation about receiving federal support.

“It is my sincere hope that the federal government will provide additional resources for states that are going to have to deal with coronavirus,” the governor said.

New cases in Caribbean

and Middle East

Dominican Republic health officials said Sunday the first confirmed patient with coronavirus is a 62-year old Italian tourist. And right over the border is Haiti, home to the worst indications of health in the Americas.

The response will test an already vulnerable region. Haiti is among the least prepared countries in the world to respond to an epidemic, according to the Global Health Security Index. Civil unrest, political scandals and a constant threat of natural disasters have hollowed out its health care system.

Physicians struggle with constant shortages of equipment, blood and essential items like oxygen, Doctors Without Borders said. Communicable diseases can spread easily in such an environment, where HIV/AIDS is the seventh leading cause of death.

The Dominican Republic has many air and sea lanes to the United States, including Puerto Rico, the Miami Herald notes, which could escalate fears of the virus spring-boarding off the island. Health officials there told its citizens to remain calm.

Across the Middle East on Sunday, governments took measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as several nations in the region reported new cases.

Bahrain confirmed six new cases, according to the gulf country’s state news agency. In Lebanon, three more people tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving from Iran, raising the total infected to 10, the Health Ministry said. The three have been quarantined in a Beirut hospital, the ministry said.

Iraq reported six new cases, bringing the total there to 19 people. All of the patients had recently visited Iran, one of the worst-hit countries outside of China, where the coronavirus originated. In a tweet on Sunday, Qatar’s Health Ministry reported two new cases, both individuals who were evacuated from Iran three days earlier and have been under quarantine. On Sunday, the Kuwaiti Health Ministry reported one new case, bring the total number of infected to 46.

Lebanon has closed all schools this week and stopped flights from China, Iran, Italy and South Korea – all nations severely affected by the outbreak. On Sunday, Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry announced that 25 hospitals have been equipped to test and handle the virus.

Egypt’s prime minister said late Saturday authorities have been testing staff at a site where tourists visited. At least six people returning to France last week from Egypt tested positive for the virus, said French health authorities, raising questions about the extent of the virus’s presence in Egypt. The country – the Arab world’s most populous at 100 million people – has announced only one case of the coronavirus, last month, and later reported the person had recovered and tested negative.

Czech Republic, France

see effects of virus outbreak

Three people in the Czech Republic have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, Health Minister Adam Vojtech said Sunday.

Reuters reported the patients, all of whom are showing mild symptoms, had recently traveled to places in northern Italy, health officials said at a news conference. One of the patients was an American student who studied in Milan, and the other two are Czech nationals. Two of the patients are in Prague, Reuters reported, and the third is about 60 miles north in the town of Usti nad Labem.

Vojtech asked Czech citizens to avoid northern Italy, which rapidly became the center of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak and has reported the highest number of confirmed cases outside Asia.

“We ask everyone to very seriously consider not traveling to those (affected) regions for holiday or ski trips unless necessary, because the danger exists,” he said during the news conference, according to Reuters.

Tourists faced closed doors at the Louvre on Sunday after the world-famous Paris museum announced it wouldn’t open because of the coronavirus.

The museum, which was visited by about 10 million people last year, posted about the closure on its website but didn’t say when the Louvre would reopen.

The announcement came a day after France banned all public indoor gatherings that include more than 5,000 people, as well as some outside events. Numerous conferences and races were canceled as a result of the policy, including a half-marathon scheduled for Sunday in Paris, The Washington Post reported.

The 2,300 workers who guard the Louvre’s priceless art are concerned about getting infected by visitors, who come from all over the world, Andre Sacristin, a union representative and museum employee, told the Associated Press.

“We are very worried because we have visitors from everywhere,” Sacristin said. ”The risk is very, very, very great.”

Staffers requested masks but were given only an alcohol-based solution to disinfect their hands, Sacristin told AP.

“That didn’t please us at all,” he said, adding that union representatives will meet with management on Monday to discuss virus prevention.

The museum is offering employees with “chronic pathologies” access to medical services, Louvre spokeswoman Sophie Grange told The Post.

Museum employees also are concerned workers from northern Italy are visiting the Louvre to collect works by Leonardo da Vinci that were loaned for an exhibition about the artist. Italy is the virus’s epicenter in Europe.

Grange said visitors can email the museum to be reimbursed for tickets.

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