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U.S. Sees 1st Coronavirus Death


Washington State today reported the nation's first death from the coronavirus. The deceased is a man in his 50s. He was treated at a hospital outside of Seattle, and health officials say they don't know how he contracted the disease. This is one of several recent cases detected on the West Coast with no known connections to travelers to affected areas abroad, and it suggests the virus is already spreading in American communities. President Trump's speaking today had these words.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We would respectfully ask the media and politicians and everybody else involved not do anything to incite a panic because there's no reason to panic.

MARTIN: The president restated that the risk to the general public remains low and that health officials are working hard to contain the spread. Joining us now is NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle. Martin, thanks so much for joining us.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Yeah, you're welcome. Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So what do we know about this first case?

KASTE: Well, as you say, it's a man - a male in his late 50s. He apparently already had some serious health problems, was more vulnerable to this sort of ailment. What's really striking, though, and important to note is that there's no apparent connection here with high-risk infection up until now. In other words, travel to Asia, that kind of thing. As far as anyone can tell, he contracted the virus here in the community, which is, of course, something that public health officials have been waiting for and preparing for. And they expect that will not be the last one.

MARTIN: But Washington state also reported two other new cases of coronavirus in the Seattle area that are, frankly, also raising concern. Can you tell us something about those?

KASTE: Yeah. Well, the focus right now is on a nursing home, a place called LifeCare in the Seattle suburbs. There are two cases, presumptive cases of COVID-19, one a health care worker from the facility. She's in her 40s. Another one is a resident in her 70s. These are presumptive cases. They've been tested locally. CDC has yet to completely confirm them. But on top of that, the whole staff and the residents of that facility are now being checked for whether they have the disease. About 50 of both staff and residents together have some sort of respiratory symptoms, and public health officials here say they believe that more of those will be confirmed to be COVID-19.

MARTIN: So is this a sign that the outbreak has started to take off?

KASTE: It's certainly a sign that we're now learning how to see the cases better. What's interesting here is that the hospital where these cases were spotted had just changed its criteria for checking people, testing people for the virus this week. They saw some new orientation, saying that the test should not be limited just to people who traveled and that sort of thing but anybody with severe respiratory problems. Once they did that, they found cases, including these cases from the nursing home. So it may be that we're sort of turning on the lights and seeing more of the problem now.

And that's certainly the sense we got today from the public health officials here. They're ramping up fast to prepare to test better and more - larger quantities of specimens from people in the community. They say they can test about 200 samples a day here or will be able to soon. But they expect they may still have to get some help from commercial labs to ramp that up even faster. I think we're just going to see a lot more positives because there's going to be a lot more testing.

MARTIN: And very briefly if you can, Martin, what are health officials suggesting the public do?

KASTE: Well, the stuff we've been hearing for a while now - social distancing, as they put it, you know? Don't meet face-to-face if you don't need to. Six feet is a good metric, lots of handwashing, don't touch your face. They say they're not ready to start canceling public events yet. But they will watch the contagion pattern here, and that might be an option at some point.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle. Martin, thank you so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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