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Seattle Announces Dramatic New Guidelines To Halt Coronavirus Spread


Today officials in Seattle and King County announced dramatic new measures to contain the spread of coronavirus in the area. Officials are recommending but not mandating that vulnerable people stay home as much as possible. Officials announced the death count is now up to 10. Joining us to talk about this is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: What are the guidelines at this point from local officials?

HARRIS: Well, the most dramatic is addressed to vulnerable populations, and that definition includes people with underlying medical conditions, also people who are pregnant and - here's the kicker - people who are over the age of 60. Here's Patty Hayes, the director of public health for Seattle, King County.


PATTY HAYES: People who are at higher risk of severe illness should try and stay home and away from large groups as much as possible, including public places where lots of people gather.

HARRIS: Again, this is a recommendation not a mandate, so the city is not locking down.

CORNISH: Are they making other kinds of recommendations?

HARRIS: They are. And, of course, they can direct - most directly to their own employees, the employees of the city and the county. And they're being asked to work from home if they can. And that will be in effect for the next three weeks. The county executive, Dow Constantine, says, obviously, not everybody can work from home. He cited bus drivers who, obviously, still have to work from behind the wheel. But - and they also recommended that other workplaces consider similar recommendations.

CORNISH: What's the guidance for people who already have flu-like symptoms?

HARRIS: Well, first of all, county officials stress that nobody who is sick should go to work. Remember; most people who get sick with COVID-19 don't get horribly sick, so in most cases, they can, basically, care for themselves at home. People should not go to the hospital either. They want to protect people in the emergency room, and they also want to save beds for people who are seriously ill. And that should be a small percentage of these cases, let's remember. And the county bought a hotel and is putting up temporary housing to use for people who test positive for the virus but who don't need hospital care and who can't stay at home safely.

CORNISH: What are some of the schools doing around the Seattle area?

HARRIS: Well, my understanding is most schools are open, though some have closed. Officials at this news conference today said they are not suggesting that schools be closed, though, of course, they reminded us that the situation is changing all the time. And the recommendations will change as they learn more. Here's county executive Dow Constantine.


DOW CONSTANTINE: We're coping with the most serious outbreak of COVID-19 anywhere in the nation. Our actions are forming the model that will be followed in other parts of the country.

HARRIS: Yes, California today reported new cases and the first death in that state, and we still don't know about the extent of this disease in California or Seattle or elsewhere, for that matter. Trump administration officials this week are making a big deal out of the fact that they have approved the manufacture of a million test kits. But the reality, Audie, is that public health labs are now just getting their hands on them, and they will really find it challenging to roll out large-scale testing in the coming days.

CORNISH: What does the Trump administration have to say about whether or not they can pull off large-scale testing?

HARRIS: Well, they are boasting about how much they've accomplished. Today the secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary Alex Azar, spoke at the White House. And even though the U.S. test program is far behind efforts elsewhere, including China, Korea and elsewhere, he asserted that America is the world's leader in testing.


ALEX AZAR: We only have over a hundred cases so far in the United States. We are not South Korea. South Korea may be doing tens of thousands of tests because South Korea is in a very different epidemiological position.

HARRIS: Actually, as public health experts have repeatedly said, we don't, in fact, know how many cases we have precisely because there has been no test available for widespread use. So we really don't know what our status is. And it's also important to remember that this test only finds active cases. We're still waiting for the U.S. to match efforts in China and Singapore, where there is a test that identifies people who were previously infected and have since recovered. We'll ultimately need that information as well to really get a handle on the scope of the epidemic, but that test is absent as well. So...

CORNISH: And, Richard, just a reminder to people - we hear a lot about some very basic advice, which is handwashing.

HARRIS: Absolutely, yes - this virus doesn't spread very readily through the air, but it can be picked up from surfaces. And so wash your hands frequently. Be careful. Face masks aren't particularly useful in this circumstance unless you're a health care worker and around people in that situation. So they're not recommending face masks but handwashing, alcohol if you can't wash your hands thoroughly. Basic, commonsense things - things you should do anyway to protect yourself from the flu.

CORNISH: Thanks for that reminder. That's NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris.

Thanks so much.

HARRIS: Anytime.

CORNISH: And we want to note that at a press conference this evening, California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak. California joins Florida and Washington state in doing so. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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