As the death toll from the novel coronavirus rose to six in the United States today, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey held a press conference with state health officials to brief residents about the state’s plan to slow the epidemic's spread.
"We are taking this threat seriously," Ducey said.
He and Cara Christ, director of the Department of Health Services, delivered the message following a briefing between Vice President Mike Pence and all 50 state governors earlier this morning on the rapidly progressing national situation on the coronavirus, which causes an infectious respiratory disease known as COVID-19.
The highly contagious coronavirus has hit every continent but Antarctica, with nearly 90,000 cases reported worldwide and over 3,000 deaths globally.
There’s been one confirmed case of a person with coronavirus in Arizona. The individual, a member of the Arizona State University community who had recently returned from Wuhan, China, is no longer infected and currently in stable condition in home quarantine.
"We know the disease is spreading, and we can expect additional cases in Arizona," Christ said.
The Arizona State Public Health Lab began testing for COVID-19 today, according to Christ, meaning they will no longer need to send approved samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of today, 25 more Arizonans have been tested for the virus by either the CDC or the Arizona State Public Health Laboratory, according to the DHS. Most were cleared, though one person’s results are still pending.
Christ said they're well-prepared to deal with the illness — the lab has the capacity to test up to 450 samples per day, and they do not anticipate any shortages in kits to test for the disease.
But concerns about the virus are widespread in the state, with Asian-American businesses reporting fewer customers due to fears of the illness — despite the fact that there have been no cases of coronavirus being spread through food materials — and individuals donning face masks. Christ and the CDC do not recommend healthy people wear masks to protect themselves from the illness.
The Arizona DHS website page on the novel coronavirus will be updated with new figures about the number of infected and tested individuals daily at 9 a.m., according to Christ.
"We're also working very closely with our local public health partners and our federal partners to identify cases and prepare the community for the possible spread of the virus," she said.
As of March 2, United States authorities have reported 96 cases of the coronavirus nationwide, with individuals receiving treatment across 13 states.
Over the weekend, the first two U.S. fatalities were announced — both were older adults with underlying health problems in Washington state. But a genetic analysis suggested that the coronavirus had been spreading undetected in the state for about six weeks. On Saturday, the Food and Drug Administration moved to sharply expand testing for the virus.
Four more deaths from the virus in Washington were announced this afternoon, all of them involving elderly individuals from the same nursing home. Officials in the Seattle area plan to establish isolation centers for infected people, the New York Times reported today.
"There are now several cases of COVID-19 in the United States in people without a travel history to an affected area," Christ said. "The CDC recently expanded the case definition of who should be tested — based on this, we expect we will have additional cases in Arizona.
"But we wanted to assure you this is typical in disease surveillance — the more we're looking for cases, the more we're going to find," Christ said. "An increase in the number of cases does not necessarily mean the disease is more severe."
The coronavirus is spread through human-to-human contact. To become infected, a droplet of mucus or saliva from a sick individual — usually transmitted through coughing or sneezing — must enter another person's body through their eyes, ears, or mouth.
These droplets can stay on surfaces for anywhere from a few hours to nine days. But because the illness cannot enter through skin, Christ said the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is by frequently washing your hands with soap — before touching your face, for at least 20 seconds.
Christ discouraged Arizonans from stocking up on supplies like hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes, or food supplies. Instead, people should buy what they need when they need it, disinfect public surfaces often, stay home if sick, and call doctors ahead of a visit if they believe they may have coronavirus to give health experts time to prepare in advance.
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The Department of Health Services will be creating coronavirus prevention guidance for health care professionals, schools and childcare centers, law enforcement businesses, and other community partners.
The state agency will be releasing their guidance for school educators later this week.
Ducey, when asked if he thought President Trump's idea to close the southern border to prevent the spread of coronavirus was a good idea, was coy.
"Well, my first concern is for public health, of course. There's going to be certain decisions that are made from Washington, D.C.," Ducey said, citing the early travel restrictions to China and airport quarantines. "I'm gonna defer to the subject matter experts in a situation like this where you're talking about a potential pandemic, so that we can make the proper decision to protect public health."