The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday defended what it called "aggressive actions" to control the spread of the new coronavirus in the United States, including stern advisories against traveling to China and mandatory federal quarantines for those arriving from the part of China with the vast majority of cases.
The characterization comes as the agency is working to provide state and local health departments with the tools needed to diagnose the virus themselves.
Currently, the CDC headquarters in Atlanta is the only place in the country with a test for the new coronavirus. That means lab results take at least 24 to 36 hours, including the time it takes to send samples overnight to Atlanta, plus four to six hours to perform the actual test.
On Monday, the CDC said it planned to submit the diagnostics to the Food and Drug Administration for approval of the test under "emergency use authorization." That action hastens the approval process for potentially lifesaving medical or diagnostic products during public health emergencies, the CDC said.
An "explosive" outbreak in China
While cases of the new coronavirus have been diagnosed in at least two dozen countries, including 11 cases in the U.S., by far, China has the greatest number of cases worldwide. As of Tuesday morning local time, Chinese health officials had reported more than 20,000 confirmed cases and 425 deaths.
The CDC called the outbreak in China "explosive" and "unprecedented."
"We are preparing as if this were the next pandemic," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a call with journalists Monday.
She said the Department of State — which last week, issued a "do not travel" advisory for China — is planning to pull out additional U.S. citizens from Hubei province in the coming days. The city of Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, is in Hubei. The first group of evacuees from Wuhan arrived in California last week and remain under federal quarantine.
On Friday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar declared the virus a public health emergency in the U.S., and announced that Americans on flights to the U.S. who have been in Hubei province in the last 14 days will be subject to up to 14 days of quarantine.
Those passengers will all be routed through one of 11 airports, including John F. Kennedy International in New York, Chicago's O'Hare, San Francisco International, Seattle-Tacoma International, Daniel K. Inouye International in Honolulu, Los Angeles' LAX, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Washington Dulles, Newark Liberty International, Dallas-Fort Worth and Detroit Metropolitan.
U.S. citizens returning from other parts of China will be given health screenings, and if they have coronavirus symptoms, they'll also be placed under quarantine, in isolation. Those who don't have any symptoms and have not been in Hubei province in the past 14 days, will be allowed to move freely, with guidance to stay home when possible and monitor themselves for illness over the next two weeks.
Also Friday, the Trump administration announced that it was temporarily suspending entry into the U.S. for any foreign nationals who may be at risk for carrying the virus. The proclamation applies to anyone other than immediate family of U.S. citizens.
Over the weekend, Chinese officials criticized the U.S. for its travel restrictions. "Many countries have offered China help and support through various ways. In contrast, the U.S. comments and actions are neither based on facts, nor helpful at this particular time," China's foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement.
"We made an aggressive decision in front of an unprecedented threat," Messonnier said. She explained the measures are not intended to catch every single case of coronavirus that comes into the country, which would be virtually impossible.
"The goal," she said, "is to slow the entry of this virus into the United States."
While Chinese health authorities have said they would permit infectious disease experts from other countries to help with the outbreak, the U.S. has not yet been invited.
Messonnier suggested the CDC's invitation to China is pending.
"We have folks ready to go to China as soon as that offer is finalized," she said. "As soon as we're allowed to go, we'll be there."
Coronavirus in the U.S.
As of Monday morning, 11 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Nine of those patients had traveled recently to Wuhan. The other two are close contacts of the patients, representing person-to-person spread of the illness in this country.
The CDC said the illnesses in the 11 patients ranged in severity. Some illnesses were mild, while others have developed pneumonia and needed mechanical support to breathe. On Monday, it was announced the first patient to be diagnosed in the U.S. — a resident of Washington state — had been released from the hospital, though he will remain in isolation at his home.
Dozens of people who came into contact with the 11 patients have been asked to monitor themselves for fever or respiratory symptoms for 14 days.
States with confirmed cases are Arizona, California (with six cases), Illinois (two cases), Massachusetts and Washington.
So far, the CDC said it's performed 260 tests sent from 36 states. The 11 known cases tested positive; 167 were negative. The rest are pending, and infectious disease experts said additional cases are expected.