White House health officials on Tuesday asked that anyone who has traveled through or left the New York City area to go into voluntary self-quarantine for 14 days to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has already infected tens of thousands of people in N.Y.C.
“To everyone who has left New York over the last few days: Because of the rate of the number of cases, you may have been exposed before you left New York,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said Tuesday during a press briefing.
“Everybody who was in New York should be self-quarantining for the next 14 days to ensure that the virus doesn’t spread to others, no matter where they have gone — whether it’s Florida, North Carolina or out to far, far reaches of Long Island,” Birx said.
Experts believe the incubation period for the virus is up to 14 days before symptoms appear and anyone who may be at risk of being sick is urged to go into isolation for those two weeks.
According to the White House’s coronavirus task force, the virus seems to have spread at a faster rate in N.Y.C. than it has anywhere else in the country. New York state has become the United States’ epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak.
In the U.S. there had been nearly 60,000 confirmed cases of the virus, which causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness, and 804 deaths as of Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker.
N.Y.C. officials said Tuesday night that the city had about 15,500 confirmed cases and 192 deaths, the Times reported.
Birx, 63, told reporters on Tuesday that “60 percent of all the new cases are coming out of the metro New York area” and an increase in cases being reported on Long Island suggest that people leaving the city for less infected areas are incidentally spreading the illness with them.
“This will be very critical that those individuals do self-quarantine in their homes over these next 14 days to make sure they don’t pass the virus to others, based on the time that they left New York,” Birx said.
Officials did not specify a cutoff date for their recommendation, such as a day in February or earlier that people should consider if that’s when they last traveled through New York in making their own decisions about quarantining.
Rather, the White House phrased it in broader terms of urged more caution.
Drew Angerer/Getty President Donald Trump (left) and Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious disease and a leading health official on the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, echoed Birx’s call to action on Tuesday. He said evidence points to about one in every 1,000 people in N.Y.C. being infected with the virus right now.
“That’s about eight to 10 times more than in other areas, which means when they go to another place, for their own safety, they’ve got to be careful [and] monitor themselves,” said Fauci, 79. “If they get sick, bring it to the attention of a physician. Get tested.”
Vice President Mike Pence urged New Yorkers to “avoid nonessential travel” and follow official guidelines.
Late last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered most people to stay home across the state, unless absolutely necessary for work, food and brief exercise.
Birx explained Tuesday that officials believe the virus is spreading faster in N.Y.C. in part because of its population density, the virus’ ability to transfer onto metal surfaces in public transportation systems like the subway and the heavy amount of international travel that happens in the city, including during the holiday season before travel restrictions were imposed.
The virus is transmitted via respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing or by someone touching a surface after an infected person has.
Spencer Platt/Getty New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Trump, 73, said Tuesday the growing number of cases in New York is “very unfortunate” and the city is “definitely a hotspot.” Pence said the government needs to deal with N.Y.C. as a “high-risk area” going forward.
“For anyone in the New York metropolitan area who has traveled, our task force is encouraging you to monitor your temperature, be sensitive to symptoms, and we are asking anyone who has traveled out of the New York City metropolitan area to anywhere else in the country to self-isolate for 14 days,” the vice president, 60, said.
To prevent the spread of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages maintaining basic forms of hygiene including careful hand washing, avoiding touching the face, moving away from people who are coughing or sneezing and staying home at signs of illness.
Health officials have also urged people around the country to practice “social distancing” and avoid gatherings and stay home as much as possible to slow new infections.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.