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Trump moves to calm fears as first US death from coronavirus is reported

President Trump spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Saturday.Jose Luis Magana/FR159526 AP via AP

WASHINGTON — Hours after officials confirmed the first death in the country from the coronavirus, President Trump on Saturday moved to calm public fears and demonstrate aggressive action against the illness, including by issuing new travel restrictions.

Presiding over an abruptly announced news conference in the White House briefing room and flanked by top public health officials, Trump warned that additional coronavirus cases in the United States are “likely,” but added that “healthy individuals should be able to fully recover.”

The person who died had been a patient at EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Wash., according to its spokeswoman. He was described as a man in his 50s with underlying health problems. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there was no evidence that the patient had traveled recently or had contact with someone known to have the virus, adding to growing signs that the virus may be spreading in the United States.

Officials in Washington state also revealed that more than 50 people in a nursing facility are sick and being tested for the virus. Dr. Frank Riedo, medical director of Infection Control at Evergreen, said local hospitals are seeing people with severe coronavirus symptoms but it’s probable that there are more cases in the community.

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“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Health officials in California, Oregon, and Washington state are worried about the novel coronavirus spreading through West Coast communities because a growing number of people are being infected despite not having visited an area where there was an outbreak, nor apparently been in contact with anyone who had.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington declared a state of emergency, directing state agencies to do everything reasonably possible to assist affected communities. The proclamation allows the use of the Washington National Guard, if necessary.

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The death and indications of possible spread signaled a new, urgent phase in the response to the virus in the United States, where 65 cases had previously been reported, none of them fatal.

Most of the cases could be explained by overseas travel or contact with someone who had been ill. This past week, though, four new cases, in California, Oregon, and Washington, were the first in the United States where the cause was mysterious and unknown — a sign, experts warned, that the virus, which has killed more than 2,800 people worldwide and sickened tens of thousands, might now be spreading in the US.

Trump, who is anxious about the virus and the toll it has taken on the stock market, which he tracks closely as a measurement of his economic record, suggested that the virus was manageable and that “the markets will all come back.”

He appealed to “the media and politicians and everybody else involved not do anything to incite a panic, because there’s no reason to panic at all.”

“Our country is prepared for any circumstance,” Trump added. “We hope it’s not going to be a major circumstance, it’ll be a smaller circumstance. But whatever the circumstances, we’re prepared.”

Joining Trump at the briefing, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the administration was issuing its highest-level warning, known as a “do not travel” warning, for areas of Italy and South Korea most affected by the virus. Pence said the United States was also banning all travel from Iran, and barring entry to any foreign citizen who has visited that country in the last 14 days.

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Officials in Washington state were already discussing the possibility that they may recommend cancellations of public events, including sports and entertainment, to limit the spread. They began warning that life in the coming weeks may change drastically.

Washington state leaders, who had for weeks reiterated that the risk to the general public was low, issued a more insistent message.

“We really believe that the risk at this point is increasing,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, a health officer for the state.

In Oregon, where officials say that an elementary school employee was among the new, unexplained cases, concerns were raised that children may have been exposed. District officials announced they would shut schools until Wednesday and conduct a deep cleaning of the building.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state health officer, said a broader closure of schools is an option the state could pursue at some point.

“If we do notice spread in our community or multiple cases, that is certainly something we would consider on a case-by-case basis,” Sidelinger said.

Health officials in Washington state announced the country’s first case of coronavirus nearly six weeks ago. That person, a man who had traveled in China, has since recovered. As dozens of other cases were diagnosed across the US, no others were announced in Washington until this past week.

On Friday night, health officials there announced that a teenage boy and a woman in her 50s had tested positive for coronavirus. The woman had recently spent time in South Korea. The boy, a high school student, had not traveled to any high-risk areas. The student’s high school will not reopen until Tuesday, and some peers who were in contact with the infected student will be kept out of school for at least 14 days, officials said.

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Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health Seattle & King County, warned that a cascade of such developments could be coming. He said businesses should be prepared to allow employees to work from home and that people may need to consider avoiding crowds.

Health officials may get to the point where they will recommend the cancellations of large public gatherings, including sporting and entertainment events, Duchin said. That could place questions over major gatherings, including a popular running race in downtown Seattle set for Sunday.

Governor Kate Brown of Oregon said that she expects more cases and that her state may take more aggressive action if the outbreak gets more severe. But, in the meantime, she said people do not need to take drastic action.

“I’m wanting to convey to Oregonians, and frankly folks on the entire West Coast: Stay calm, continue on your daily lives, and follow public health precautions,” Brown said.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.