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Coronavirus: Florida Reports 1st Deaths On East Coast; Cases In D.C. Area, New York

Updated at 8:32 p.m. ET

To this point, the West Coast has borne the brunt of coronavirus in the U.S., with the bulk of confirmed cases so far reported in California and Washington state. But that’s likely to change soon, with reports of cases now in Florida, New York and the Washington, D.C., area.

On Friday, health authorities in Florida said two COVID-19 patients in the state have died, in what are believed to be the first deaths linked to the disease on the East Coast. One of the patients lived in the district of Rep. Matt Gaetz, who drew criticism from colleagues earlier this week for “making light” of coronavirus when he wore a massive gas mask to a House floor vote on measures to combat the epidemic.

“Our prayers are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time,” the Republican congressman tweeted late Friday, adding: “I’m confident our community will continue to remain vigilant in combating this disease and pray there will be no further contractions of the virus in Northwest Florida.”

The state has confirmed more than a dozen cases so far — the largest cluster on the East Coast outside of New York, which has reported several dozen cases of its own. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency Saturday, after officials learned of new cases in New York City and Westchester County.

“We are aggressively testing, following up leads, because we want to find as many people who test positive so we can get them out of circulation,” Cuomo said at a media briefing midday Saturday.

Elsewhere on the East Coast, Washington, D.C., confirmed a “presumptive case” of the virus in a man in his 50s with no history of international travel, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Saturday evening. The city also said it was looking into the case of one person who spent time in D.C. and tested positive later in Maryland. That came roughly an hour after the Pentagon confirmed a U.S. Marine at Fort Belvoir, just outside Washington in northern Virginia, tested positive for the coronavirus after returning from overseas.

Off the coast of California, thousands of passengers were confined to the Grand Princess cruise ship near San Francisco after 21 people aboard tested positive for the virus. On Saturday, Vice President Pence said the government was tracking an additional cruise ship that may have shared crew members with the Grand Princess or the Diamond Princess, another ship that faced quarantine in Japan in February after passengers tested positive.

All told, the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. is well over 300 — 19 of whom have died, mostly in Washington state. At least 14 people who died were associated with one nursing home near Seattle, according to the public health department of Seattle and King County. Health authorities in Washington say they have confirmed 102 cases of the coronavirus in the state.

As of late Saturday afternoon, the total tally of confirmed cases worldwide stood at more than 105,000, some 3,500 of whom have died from the disease.

The vast majority of those cases have been reported in Hubei province in mainland China, the outbreak’s epicenter, but the number of new cases there has been declining lately — while the virus has taken root in South Korea, Iran and Italy and has reached dozens of countries.

Back in the U.S., schools and companies have announced a spate of measures to mitigate spread of the virus. Stanford University in California and the University of Washington and Seattle University, which boast tens of thousands of students among them, said Friday they are canceling in-person classes through the end of their respective quarters later this month.

And Amtrak, on the East Coast, said that because it is “experiencing some reduced demand,” it plans to halt its nonstop Acela train service between New York and Washington, D.C., beginning Tuesday and continuing through late May.

Texas has reported just a half-dozen confirmed cases, none of which have been found in Austin — but that fact did not dissuade the city’s mayor, Steve Adler, from preemptively canceling South by Southwest, the city’s signature music, film and technology event.

“We have no reported cases in Austin, but certainly the longer we can stay that way, the better off we are. It’s inevitable that it’s coming here as to all other cities, but delay is better,” Adler told NPR’s Weekend Edition on Saturday.

The event drew more than 400,000 visitors to the city last year. Adler acknowledged that its cancellation this year, just a week before its scheduled opening, is “very tough and truly heartbreaking” for the performers and vendors who had been depending on the business the event customarily brings.

“We’re going to have to mitigate that as best we can as a community, be as resilient as we can,” he said. “We just ultimately didn’t have a choice because the focus needed to be on doing what was necessary to best keep the city safe.”

Two Division III programs, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Yeshiva, played in front of empty stands Friday in Baltimore. Officials did not allow spectators because of coronavirus concerns in Maryland.
Terrance Williams/AP

Eyes are also trained on another signature event expected later this month: March Madness. So far, the NCAA has made no major changes to the massively popular (and lucrative) men’s basketball tournament that begins in earnest March 19.

“I don’t think anything is off the table at this point,” ESPN’s Michele Steele told NPR on Saturday. “The NCAA says they’re just monitoring the situation, and that there’s too much that they don’t know. So their health advisory board just is not recommending them to cancel games or fan participation. So it’s just wait and see at this point.”

In a memo to teams Friday, the NBA reportedly warned that they should prepare to play games without fans in the stands — a proposal that some players, including LeBron James, are resisting.

“Nah, that’s impossible,” James told reporters Friday. “I ain’t playing. If I ain’t got the fans in the crowd, that’s what I play for. I play for my teammates. I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. If I show up to an arena, and there ain’t no fans in there? I ain’t playing. So, they could do what they want to do.”

More than 2 million test kits to be shipped by Monday

That’s the headline from the media briefing held Saturday by federal health authorities. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said he believes officials will have the capacity to ship out 2.1 million test kits by Monday.

“That translates into [the fact that] approximately 850,000 patients could be tested,” Hahn explained to reporters, adding that the actual capacity will depend on local health care providers.

The announcement came as several outlets have reported on federal officials’ tardiness and troubles in rolling out test kits to local doctors and public health experts.

During the same briefing, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar attempted to delicately correct President Trump, who told reporters Friday at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that “anybody who wants a test gets a test.”

“He’s using a shorthand,” Azar said, explaining that what the president “meant to say” is that “you may not get a test unless a doctor or a public health official prescribes a test.”

Hotel used for quarantined patients collapses in China

A five-story hotel in the city of Quanzhou collapsed on Saturday evening, trapping at least 70 people amid the rubble, according to The People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. The paper reports that about 40 people have been rescued so far from the building, which had been used as a quarantine location for people suspected of having COVID-19.

It remains unclear what caused the building to fall.

The Vatican cancels in-person gathering Sunday

People who wish to see Pope Francis lead prayers in St. Peter’s Square, a weekly event that regularly draws tens of thousands of worshippers, will need to content themselves with viewing him remotely on Sunday.

The Holy See Press Office announced Saturday that the pontiff will lead the prayer from the Library of the Apostolic Palace — rather than from his usual window overlooking the square — and will livestream the proceedings online rather than encourage visitors to gather at the Vatican. Officials say they will be carrying out his general audience Wednesday in a similar fashion.

“These decisions are necessary in order to avoid the risk of the spread of COVID-19,” said the Holy See, noting that the move was done at the request of Italian authorities.

The Vatican recently announced its first confirmed patient, while Italy has seen the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside Asia, with more than 5,800 total confirmed cases reported as of Saturday — a leap of more than 1,000 since the day before. Nearly 50 of those patients died in a span of about 24 hours earlier this week, according to local authorities.

Perhaps the most prominent of the newly confirmed patients is Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of Italy’s Democratic Party, which is part of the country’s governing coalition. Zingaretti revealed his diagnosis in a video posted Saturday to Facebook.

”I am well,” he explained, according to an Associated Press translation, “so it was decided I will be isolated at home.”

A member of the U.S. Navy is also among the patients recently diagnosed with COVID-19 in the country. U.S. European Command said the sailor, who is stationed in Naples, represents the “first positive case of a U.S. service member in Europe.”

NPR’s James Doubek contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
 
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