Virus hits nearly every state as officials scramble to respond

Rows of hand sanitizer are seen empty at a Walgreens in Idaho Falls, Idaho. (John Roark/The Idaho Post-Register via Courthouse News)

(CN) – Federal and state officials took unprecedented measures on Thursday to control the coronavirus outbreak that has grown to more than 1,300 cases across 44 states.

Congress will close the U.S. Capitol to the public by the end of the day. Schools closed across the country and some universities sent students home just before spring break. States such as Florida began restricting visitors’ access to nursing homes.

Some federal agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, will force employees to work from home. The governor of Oregon prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people statewide, while Washington state’s governor has instituted a similar ban in three counties hit hardest by the virus. In California, the governor said gatherings of that size should be called off in the Golden State as well, though he did not outright ban them.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine took a stricter approach and banned gatherings of more than 100 people. He also announced that all K-12 schools will be on extended spring break starting at the end of day Monday. The break will continue until April 3.

The ban applies to sporting events, parades and other mass gatherings, but does not include workplaces, retail venues, restaurants, libraries or places of worship. DeWine said he will also halt visits to Ohio nursing homes and psychiatric facilities. The state currently has five confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 52 patients under investigation.

At a press conference in Portland, Ore. on Thursday, Gov. Kate Brown said the state was shifting from a strategy of containment of the state’s 19 confirmed cases to one of “preventing the worst impacts of a mass outbreak from coming to pass.”

Health officials said delayed testing means the number infected in Oregon is probably closer to 200. And modeling shows the state could have 7,500 cases by mid-May.

Brown called on the federal government to send more test kits.

“We are concerned, frankly, about our testing capacity,” Brown said. “However, the federal government is the only one who can expand our testing and we are calling on them to help us do that.”

The ban on gatherings of over 250 people includes private events like weddings. But big outdoor gatherings, like Portland’s iconic Saturday Market, might be exempt – depending on whether organizers can maintain sanitation and space of three feet between attendees, according to Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority.

“These guidelines are meant to maintain social distancing,” Allen said. “If outdoor events are able to maintain social distancing then that’s okay.”

However, those who are most at risk of complications from the disease shouldn’t attend such gatherings, Allen said. That means people over the age of 60 and those with diabetes or heart or lung disease.

“If you are in the at-risk populations, you should stay home as much as possible,” Allen said. “We can’t emphasize enough how dangerous this is for people who are at risk.”

For the time being, schools will remain open in Oregon. Seattle Public Schools closed Thursday for at least two weeks.

The difficulty, health officials said, would be responding quickly enough if infection rates increase.

“If we start seeing crowded emergency departments, by then it is too late for social distancing measures to have an impact,” said Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead health officer for the Portland metropolitan area. “I can’t predict what will happen in the next few days.”

All three West Coast states have declared states of emergency over the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, as have Colorado, Massachusetts and Florida, where two people have died.

Following the lead of the National Basketball Association and the NCAA, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer announced Thursday they would suspend their seasons indefinitely. Most NHL teams had about a dozen games left in the regular season, with the Stanley Cup playoffs set to begin in a month.

Major League Baseball team owners discussed plans for their upcoming season in a conference call Thursday and while an official announcement has not been made, multiple media reports indicate the league will suspend spring training and delay the start of the regular season. However, preseason games already scheduled for Thursday in Florida were being played with fans in attendance.

President Donald Trump’s announcement of a 30-day travel ban from European countries caused stocks to drop sharply, triggering another halt in trading Thursday morning.

The ban on foreign citizens coming into the U.S. goes into effect on Friday. European leaders criticized the president’s move.

Vice President Mike Pence gave more details on the travel restrictions in an interview with CNN on Thursday morning. He said U.S. citizens and legal residents coming home from Europe will be screened and required to self-quarantine.

“We’re not doing a travel ban as our strategy,” Pence said. “The suspending all travel for 30 days from Europe is a part of the strategy. The other part is an aggressive mitigation strategy.”

The U.S. State Department also raised its worldwide travel advisory to Level 3 and urged citizens to “reconsider travel abroad” in a statement.

Stocks continued to tumble with the S&P 500 down more than 7% and Dow Jones Industrial Average down more than 8% by noon Thursday.

The coronavirus threat has even impacted some of America’s favorite celebrities. In a statement on Instagram, Tom Hanks and his wife announced they had been infected with the virus. The couple is traveling in Australia.

“We Hanks’ will be tested, observed and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires,” Hanks wrote. “Not much more to it than a one-day-at-a-time approach, no?”

The nation’s top health officials spoke to members of Congress again Thursday and stressed there is a still a problem with widespread testing of coronavirus.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “And that is a failing.”

Sitting next to Fauci, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said testing through the private sector should relieve the impact on local health departments.

Right now, the CDC can only process 300 to 350 tests a day, Redfield said.

“The truth is we’ve under-invested in the public health labs,” he said.

As of noon Thursday, there were 1,323 coronavirus cases in the U.S. and 38 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker. The virus has spread to 44 states.

Concerns over the coronavirus have canceled some of the country’s largest events, including Chicago’s massive St. Patrick’s Day parade and the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, both slated for this weekend. New York City also called off its St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“While I know the parade organizers did not make this decision lightly, public health experts agree that one of the most effective ways to contain the spread of the virus is to limit large gatherings and close contacts, and I applaud the parade’s leadership for working cooperatively with us,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

The coronavirus has spread from Wuhan, China, to every continent except Antarctica. The World Health Organization has officially deemed the situation a pandemic. The number of worldwide cases surpassed 120,000 on Thursday. COVID-19 has so far killed more than 4,300 people across the globe.

Courthouse News reporter Kyle Anne Uniss contributed to this report.