Coronavirus cases spread as nation’s second death reported

By Dan Goldberg

Top Trump administration officials soberly reassured the public Sunday morning that most people had little to fear from the spread of coronavirus — but warned that more cases are coming. By evening the headlines were dominated by several new confirmed cases on both coasts and reports of a second U.S. death.

Vice President Mike Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar said during a series of morning show appearances that the pace of testing was ramping up after problems with the initial testing kits.

Hours later, HHS acknowledged that it had opened an investigation into why the diagnostic tests first released by the CDC were flawed, a problem that public health experts say impeded detection of the virus.

The growing number of cases and calls for accountability follow a week in which the markets tanked, President Donald Trump and his top aides worried what effects a global outbreak would have on the economy and the president’s re-election prospects, and the administration tries to demonstrate it has capability to deal with an escalating crisis.

Pence, on NBC’s “Meet The Press” said public health experts had assured him that “the vast majority“ of Americans infected by the virus will recover.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar arrives to speak about the coronavirus in the briefing room of the White House, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

"The reality ... is that for most people that contract the coronavirus, they will recover," Pence said on CNN’s “State of the Union." "But for people that have other conditions, that would militate toward a worse outcome, that we could have more sad news."

On Sunday evening, health officials from King County in Washington reported that a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions had died, the second reported death in the U.S. It was one of four new cases the county reported. All were residents of LifeCare, the skilled nursing facility where resident and an employee have already tested positive.

The news out of Washington, where Gov. Jay Inslee has already declared a state of emergency, came on the heels of New York’s first reported case, five new cases in California, two new cases in Florida, a second case in Oregon and new cases reported earlier in the day in Illinois and Rhode Island.

Pence, whom President Donald Trump tapped to lead the response to the outbreak, acknowledged the United States has lagged other countries in terms of distributing testing kits, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that “it’s a very fair question" and that the administration is "addressing it.” It is unclear which senior health officials, at which agencies, knew about the CDC test problems and when they learned of them. HHS is convening a team of scientists from outside the CDC to investigate the test development and its flaws, according to an HHS spokesperson.

CDC also had to apologize for mistakenly telling the president that the first patient who died was a woman when in fact it was a man in his late 50s. Pence blamed the mistake on miscommunication.

In Illinois, officials reported a third positive test for the virus. The previous two patients made a full recovery, according to a statement from the state health department. On Sunday morning, Rhode Island officials announced the state’s first positive test, a person in their mid-40s who had traveled to Italy in mid-February. That person did not return to work, state health officials said, and the person’s family is self-quarantining.

In New York, a woman in her late 30s contracted the virus while traveling abroad in Iran, and is currently quarantined at home.

The CDC has officially confirmed 22 cases in the U.S. so far, including at least four in which people were infected without traveling to an affected country or coming into contact with anyone known to have the disease, though that number is expected to climb once state results are confirmed.

Pence said four patients remain in serious condition.

“If someone comes to a local hospital and complains of a respiratory illness, we're not just testing them for the flu, we're also testing them, in more cases now, for coronavirus,” Pence said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.“ “And that's how several of the cases that came to light at the end of this week came to our attention.“

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday said he wants the spending package currently being debated in Congress to include enough funding for Medicare to cover the coronavirus vaccine, which is at least months away from being widely available.

Several vaccines are in development in the U.S. and abroad, but they are still in early stages.

“My plan to have Medicare fully cover the cost of the vaccine will mean no senior will be forced to make the choice between shelling out and going without,” Schumer said during a press conference in New York.