Five U.S. cities have begun testing people with flu-like symptoms to see if they might instead have the new coronavirus that originated in China, a sign that officials think cases of the virus may be seeping into the country despite screening at airports.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced the initiative during a Senate panel on Thursday, where he was discussing the president’s budget proposal. Elaborating on NPR Friday, Azar said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was working with health departments in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to test people for coronavirus who show up to doctor’s offices and hospitals with flu symptoms.
“Many questions about the virus remain,” Azar, who is leading the president’s task force against coronavirus, said during Thursday’s hearing. “And this effort help see whether there is broader spread than we have been able to detect so far.”
The announcement came just as officials announced that a 15th case of the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, had arrived in the United States. The disease, known as COVID-19, is a respiratory illness that has spread to 44,730 people in China and killed 1,114 there.
The Trump administration has 600 people still under quarantine after the State Department rushed them back from China amid the outbreak. At least three of those who were rushed back have been found to carry the virus. Officials have repeatedly warned that more cases of the virus are likely in the U.S.
Azar said on NPR that the CDC and the National Institutes of Health requested to send scientists to China to assist in the efforts and learn more about the coronavirus, but hasn’t yet gotten the green light from the Chinese government yet. The understanding, he said, was that the World Health Organization had secured an agreement with China that would involve the U.S., but “we are waiting on final word.”
Scientists still don’t know how quickly the virus spreads, how severe it gets, whether people can spread the virus when they don’t have symptoms, and other significant considerations.
“Obviously, we are quite eager for the Chinese to accept the offer of the World Health Organization and the United States to assist their scientists in this endeavor,” Azar said.