U.S. Fight Against Virus in New Phase as Containment Falters

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. has shifted into a new phase of its coronavirus response after efforts to stamp out sparks of an outbreak have failed. Authorities now are focusing on limiting damage.

For weeks, the biggest effect of the smattering of identified cases had been a mild sense of worry. That changed this week, with universities canceling classes, patients popping up in offices and nursing homes, and local authorities limited some public gatherings.

A fast-growing epidemic in Italy that’s overwhelmed hospitals and led to clampdowns on movement has added to the foreboding— proof that the virus was capable not just of bringing a city in China to a halt, but also staggering a major western urban center.

Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that America had lost valuable time tracking the virus. Some regions now can merely try to cope with its spread rather than stop it, and hospitals are ill-prepared for a sudden influx of patients with Covid-19, as the disease it causes is called, he said. Now the U.S. is coming to grips with the fact that measures to subdue the coronavirus and protect the vulnerable will be disruptive and economically painful.

“In general, we’re in a containment, blended mitigation,” Redfield told Congress on Tuesday. “In some areas we’re in high mitigation.”

Test Problems

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump asserted again that the U.S. had done an excellent job testing for the disease, saying it “has gone very well.” The reality is that a troubled rollout of diagnostic kits consumed weeks and meant that local health labs had little ability to conduct wide surveillance of patients. That made the number of infections look far smaller than it likely was.

It also impeded the U.S.’s early efforts to contain the virus. The weeks of delays to get working tests meant that state and local health workers fell behind the transmission of the virus from person-to-person, hobbling attempts to identify and isolate patients. “If you’re a week late,” Redfield told Congress, “it matters.”

Massachusetts reported 51 new cases Tuesday tied to a drugmaker’s business conference. New York added 31. And in Washington state, where the infection has ripped through one nursing home and spread to several more, 105 more people were diagnosed. According to Johns Hopkins, the U.S. tally rose above 1,000 infections on Tuesday. The university counts cases from cruise ships, including the Diamond Princess vessel that was quarantined by Japan, in their tally for the U.S.

Last month, the CDC warned Americans to be ready for significant disruptions to their daily lives, including school closings, cancellations of sporting events, concerts and business meetings.

On Monday, California’s Santa Clara County banned mass gatherings after the case count rose to 43 and one person died. On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state would use the National Guard to help set up a mile-radius zone in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle. The state will close schools, religious spaces and other venues where people gather, after more than 100 cases were found in Westchester County. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began to move classes online, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Tuesday called for indoor athletic events to be played without fans, and for nursing homes to screen visitors.

“Our goal is to dramatically slow down the spread of #COVID19 and save lives,” DeWine said in a tweet. “Now is the time to take action.” Hours later, Senator Bernie Sanders canceled a campaign rally in the state, which holds its primary for the Democratic presidential nomination March 17, citing “concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak.” His rival, Joseph Biden, also called off a rally.

The U.S. outbreak is likely still in its early stages. Less than three weeks ago, on Feb. 21, Italy had only 17 known cases. Now there are more than 10,000, at least 631 people have died. Health workers in Milan have said that the number of severely ill patients is beginning to overcome the ability of hospitals and doctors to treat them.

“The United States was always going to see a substantial number of cases,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in Washington on Tuesday. The remarks by Azar, who has been helping coordinate the federal response, are a departure from Trump’s prior assessments of the situation, in which he repeatedly said the U.S. had contained the virus.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee gave a dire warning. He cited statistical models that estimated there could be anywhere from 500 to 2,000 unidentified cases in the state.

“If there are 1,000 people infected today,” Inslee said, “in seven or eight weeks there could be 64,000 people infected in the state of Washington if we don’t somehow slow down this epidemic.”

(Updates U.S. case numbers based on a John Hopkins study in the eighth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Henry Goldman, Daniel Flatley and Matt Day.

To contact the author of this story: Drew Armstrong in New York at darmstrong17@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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