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US agency ships test kits across nation to combat virus

'No reason to fear Asians,' CDC expert says in shadow of hate crimes

Passengers arrive at Los Angeles International Airport from Shanghai after a positive case of the coronavirus was announced in the Orange County suburb of Los Angeles.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The U.S. now has 12 cases of the new coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday as it moved to send domestic and foreign labs hundreds of diagnostic kits it developed to aid in the fight.

California has six confirmed patients, while Illinois has two. Arizona, Washington, Wisconsin and Massachusetts have one each.

"The U.S. government and its public health systems have been preparing for an outbreak like this for years," said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a telephone press briefing. "All of the pandemic planning that we've done for influenza is the foundation for our response to this new virus, and we believe this is the beginning of what could be a long response."

Two cases were close household contacts with people who had traveled to Wuhan, and one case involved traveling to Beijing and exposure to a patient in China, with the rest all having "direct contact themselves with Wuhan," Messonnier said. All are improving, she reported.

Messonnier said the CDC will initially send 200 diagnostic test kits to U.S. laboratories and another 200 to selected international labs. More are now in production and will be made available in the future, she said.

The kits will save hospitals the trouble of sending samples from patients to the CDC in Atlanta for testing -- a process that takes at least 36 to 48 hours plus shipping time.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the city asked the CDC for the test kits a week ago, urging the agency to respond quickly. And "the faster they do that, the better off everyone'll be," he told reporters.

Each kit can handle 700 to 800 patient samples. The CDC is working on manufacturing more but has prioritized sending at least one kit to every public health laboratory, Messonnier said.

The CDC has also grown the coronavirus in cell culture for genetic and other research purposes, sending it to the National Institutes of Health for the scientific community to access, she said.

"Right now, we're aggressively working to contain introduction in the United States," Messonnier said of the outbreak. "If community spread is established here in the U.S., we will implement broader measures to mitigate the impact of the virus on our communities."

More than 800 employees at the CDC are working on the coronavirus response, including nearly 200 on airport screening of passengers coming into the U.S. from China and other tasks.

China on Thursday reported a mainland death toll of 563, and 28,018 confirmed cases, at the end of Wednesday.

Cases had also been confirmed by Wednesday in the U.K., Belgium, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, Spain, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the U.S., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Cambodia, Sweden and Russia.

The CDC has worked with the Chinese government for 30 years on public health and has helped train professionals to contribute to the response team, said Barbara Marston, a CDC official leading the agency's international task force.

The CDC is a technical partner for China's field epidemiology training program, which has graduated 279 epidemiologists who have carried out more than 2,000 outbreak investigations as part of their training, Marston said.

"Many graduates are applying their training to investigate this outbreak," she said.

The CDC has also identified experts who are prepared to join a planned WHO mission to China to better understand the coronavirus, according to Marston.

Since the outbreak, there has been a shortage of surgical face masks and N95 masks in Asian countries as well as the U.S.

"We're working with health care and industry partners to understand the supply chains for personal protective equipment, and we're putting tools in place to help reduce the burden public health and health care facilities face when monitoring individuals at risk for this new virus," Messonnier said.

The CDC has advised against wearing masks on a daily basis. Messonnier said the current risk of the coronavirus to the American public is low. The CDC is using this "window of opportunity" to try to slow its spread and buy time to make further preparations, she said.

Virus-related discrimination and hate crimes have also made news of late. A mask-wearing woman was recently attacked in a Chinatown subway station, the New York Post reported.

"I am very concerned about the kind of stigma" described, Messonnier said.

"Generally, there's no reason for the American public to fear Asians in our community, and it really saddens me to hear these stories," she said. "Our sympathies go out with folks."

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