Top health officials brief senators on coronavirus as infections spread
Top U.S. public health officials on Friday briefed senators on the spread of coronavirus, which has infected hundreds of people in China and two in the United States.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious disease unit of the National Institutes of Health, led the briefing.
Most senators expressed satisfaction leaving the briefing that officials are taking appropriate steps to fight the virus.
“I think they have responded very well at this point,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has gone further than most, sending a letter to the Trump administration on Friday asking whether travel from affected areas in China to the United States should be restricted or banned.
Leaving the briefing, Hawley said officials told senators they don’t think that step is necessary right now but that they had not closed the door on it.
“They don’t think travel restrictions, where we just say we’re not going to allow people in, they don’t think that that’s necessary quite yet, but they’re monitoring it, they’re seeing what the spread is like,” Hawley said.
But Fauci told reporters after the briefing that a travel ban is not on the table.
“It’s not something that I think we’re even considering,” Fauci said.
The U.S. has already put in place screenings for fever and other symptoms at five major U.S. airports, with the two U.S. cases confirmed in Washington state and Chicago.
The State Department and the CDC have also issued a travel advisory, telling U.S. citizens not to take unnecessary trips to the affected areas in China.
“At this point, they feel they have made the right decisions. Obviously it’s going to be monitored on a daily basis to see where it goes from here,” Murray said.
Officials told senators that more cases in the United States are likely, a point that the CDC also made to reporters on a call earlier Friday.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said leaving the briefing that a third U.S. case could be confirmed soon.
However, right now all of the cases are from people who recently traveled from China, meaning there is no transmission of the virus inside the United States.
“I think the risk is very low right now for the United States. The thing that you need to be watching out for is sustained person-to-person transmission,” Fauci said.
He added that hasn’t been the case in the United States or even in the other countries where the virus has been found.
Officials also told senators they do not need more funding at the moment to fight the virus.
Senators and Fauci also offered praise for China’s cooperation with U.S. officials.
“I’m impressed,” Fauci said. “I was involved very deeply with the SARS response. And with SARS, the Chinese were not particularly transparent. … It was an embarrassment for them. I think they regretted that. Right now, from what I can see, they’re being quite transparent.”
But one senator said he felt like officials did not have enough answers for him.
“We are far from having this potential epidemic under control. We should be worried and concerned about this potential epidemic as a nation,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
“I think there is a lot that we are still learning,” Blumenthal said. “What I heard in response to many questions is a tentative answer. Here’s what we know. But we need to know more.”
The briefing comes as the virus is spreading in China, where officials have now reported 26 deaths and more than 800 cases, according to media reports. Chinese officials have shut down travel to and from cities around Wuhan.