Feb 21, 2020 - Health

Repatriated American citizens have doubled coronavirus cases in U.S.

Face mask discarded on the ground outside the Diamond Princess cruise ship

Face mask discarded outside the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

The official number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. just doubled — to 34 — but public health officials are pointing out that these are mostly people who've been repatriated.

Why it matters: As concerns grow about a global pandemic, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want to make sure the message gets out: "We are not seeing community spread here in the United States," Nancy Messonnier says.

"We are separating out folks [who've been repatriated] because they really are a separate category and don't reflect transmission and risk in the U.S."
— Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases

By the numbers: There are 34 confirmed total cases in the U.S.

  • 18 are from the Diamond Princess cruise, and the CDC expects more will be confirmed as testing progresses, as this is a "high-risk" group, Messonnier says.
  • Three are from those initially evacuated from Wuhan, China.
  • 11 are travel-related.
  • Two are from person-to-person infections.
  • On Thursday, Humboldt County, California public health officials confirmed infection in a person who reportedly traveled to China.
  • And, just to cause more confusion, China announced on Thursday it will be reverting to its prior method of calculating cases to only those diagnosed in a lab.

Behind the scenes: Reports have been circulating on a disagreement between the State Department and the CDC over whether they should fly or keep in Japan those U.S. citizens from the Diamond Princess cruise who were suspected of having the illness without showing symptoms.

  • William Walters, executive director of the State's Bureau of Medical Services, confirmed that as they were bringing U.S. citizens on a bus from the cruise to the airport, they received notification that 14 asymptomatic people had tested positive in Japan.
  • There was "robust" discussion among the various agencies involved, but the "State Department made the decision in bringing these people home," Walters said at a press briefing — a decisions he still believes was correct, he added.
  • Messonnier responded that while differences may occur "in real time" decision-making, the agencies are all working together on the same mission, to protect the American people.
  • Meanwhile, two deaths were confirmed on Thursday in Japanese elderly passengers from the 600+ confirmed cases in Diamond Princess cruise guests.

Separately, the State Department believes Americans should "reconsider" taking cruises in or to Asia, as "repatriation does not reflect our standard practice," Ian Brownlee, principal deputy assistant secretary of the State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, pointed out at the press briefing.

The big picture: COVID-19 has now killed at least 2,250 people and infected almost 77,000 others. The vast majority are in mainland China, but the infection has been spreading to more countries and territories — now at 31.

  • "Apart from the DiamondPrincess cruise ship, the Republic of Korea now has the most cases outside China, and we’re working closely with the government to fully understand the transmission dynamics that led to this increase," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said Friday.
  • The WHO also is also concerned "about the increase in COVID-19 cases in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where there are now 18 cases and four deaths. WHO has supplied testing kits, and will continue to provide further support."

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