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The Latest On The Coronavirus Outbreak: At Least 1 Patient Dies In The U.S.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's been a dramatic few days of developments related to the coronavirus. Washington state announced several firsts yesterday - the first death of someone in the U.S. infected with the virus, the first health worker to be infected and the first potential outbreak. At a long-term care facility outside Seattle, more than 50 people are being tested for the coronavirus. The Trump administration has also ramped up its response. And here to bring us up to speed is NPR science reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Hi, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So President Trump held a press conference yesterday with members of the Coronavirus Task Force. What did we hear?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The president announced, first of all, that there had been the first U.S. death. Trump said the victim was a woman, but authorities later confirmed it was actually a man in his 50s with underlying health conditions. And he was in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle.

Vice President Pence also announced in that press conference new travel restrictions in areas that have seen recent outbreaks - Iran and parts of South Korea and Italy. President Trump also took a few questions. And some of them referred to the fact that he used the word hoax in connection to coronavirus on Friday. He tried to clarify he was referring to Democrats' criticism of the response, not the virus itself.

FADEL: So at the end of the week, there were reports of a few positive cases that appear to be community-spread in California, Oregon, meaning not connected to travel, to Asia or other affected areas but contracted right here in the U.S. And now there are several more confirmed in Washington state, potentially dozens more. What's going on?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So the big change was that public health officials started looking for cases differently. The medical director for infectious disease at the hospital, EvergreenHealth, explained how it happened at a press conference yesterday. He said that the guidelines about who should be tested changed last week. You no longer need a travel history or close contact with somebody with coronavirus. So EvergreenHealth looked at its patients and saw two with no travel history who are very sick with respiratory infections. With the new guidelines, they became candidates to test for coronavirus, and both tested positive. So one was the patient in his 50s, who sadly died. The other was a resident of this nursing home, Life Care Center in Kirkland. Local health officials realized that a health care worker from Life Care was sick, as well. She tested positive. And that's what led officials to look into this possible outbreak.

FADEL: So these might not be new cases then.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. Exactly. Remember, the symptoms look a lot like the flu, and it's flu season. And health officials say most cases are mild, so people might not be even going to the hospital for them. So now that the new guidelines for who to test has changed, and there are these new abilities for local labs around the country to do more testing, we will likely see many more positive cases. And it's hard to know at this point how many more are out there. A health official from Seattle, King County said in yesterday's press briefing these newly confirmed cases are likely, quote, "the tip of the iceberg." But it's important to remember overall, the risk to the American public is still very low. The important thing to do is the thoroughly washing your hands, keeping away from sick people, all of those measures that you can take to protect yourself and prevent the spread. The message is be vigilant, but don't panic.

FADEL: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thank you so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.