HHS chief: No plans to declare public health emergency over coronavirus

HHS chief: No plans to declare public health emergency over coronavirus
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The Trump administration has no current plans to declare a public health emergency over the Wuhan coronavirus, the top federal health official said Tuesday.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that the overall risk to Americans is low, though authorities are monitoring possible cases in nearly 30 states. 

“I won’t hesitate at all to invoke any authorities I need to, to ensure we’re taking all steps to protect the American people, but I’ll do it when it’s appropriate,” Azar said.

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Some congressional Republicans, including Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) and Rep. Vern BuchananVernon Gale BuchananMORE (Fla.) have called for a public health emergency declaration in order to free up additional federal funding. 

Azar noted that there are still only five confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States, with no person-to-person transmission. That means that every person with a confirmed case has traveled to Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated.

“This is potentially a very serious public health threat, but at this time Americans should not worry about their own safety,” Azar said. 

The outbreak has killed at least 106 people in China, with more than 4,500 confirmed cases. U.S. officials on Tuesday said they are monitoring 73 possible cases.

At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expanding its efforts to screen incoming travelers for cases of the coronavirus. Screenings will now occur in 20 airports across the country, officials said.

When asked about the possibility of a ban on all travelers from China, Azar said all options have to be on the table.

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"But diseases are not terribly good at respecting borders," he added.

Late Monday, the CDC and the State Department warned Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to China

Azar urged the Chinese government to allow a team of CDC experts to travel to the country, either directly or in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO), to assist Chinese authorities and to learn more about the virus.

"I can say that the the posture of the Chinese government levels of cooperation and interaction with us is completely different from what we experienced in 2003 [during the SARS epidemic] and I want to commend them for that," Azar said.

"But getting WHO, CDC experts on the ground to be able to assist the Chinese experts" is important, he added. 

While Azar was briefing reporters, the WHO said it reached an agreement with Chinese authorities to send international experts to visit the country "as soon as possible."  However, the organization did not offer any additional details. 

Updated: 1:30 p.m.