Coronavirus updates: WHO increases risk to 'very high,' tells governments to 'wake up'

Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

The World Health Organization on Friday increased its coronavirus risk assessment to "very high" as cases outside of China continue to increase. But officials caution the virus can still be contained if the chain of transmission can be broken.

“We are on the highest level of alert or highest level of risk assessment in terms of spread and in terms of impact,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program. He said the designation was not meant to alarm or scare people, but to alert every country to be vigilant.

"This is a reality check for every government on the planet: Wake up. Get ready," he said. "This virus may be on its way and you need to be ready. You have a duty to your citizens, you have a duty to the world to be ready.”

At the same time, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, noted that most cases can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases.

"We do not see evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities," he said. "As long as that’s the case, we still have a chance of containing this coronavirus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts."

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Meanwhile, more than 20 vaccines are being developed worldwide with results from clinical trials expected in a few weeks, he said.

The coronavirus outbreak has infected more than 83,000 people and killed nearly 3,000 people globally as of Friday morning.

China, though hardest hit, has seen lower numbers of new infections, with 327 additional cases reported Friday, bringing the country's total to 78,824. South Korea has recorded 2,337 cases, the most outside of China.

Here's the latest on the outbreak of COVID-19: 

State Department, CDC: Avoid or reconsider travel to Italy

On Friday, both the State Department and CDC elevated their travel advisories after the number of cases in that country more than doubled over the course of one week, increasing from 270 to 655.

The CDC raised Italy to level 3 ("Avoid non-essential travel – widespread community transmission"), its most severe warning, noting that "older adults and people with chronic medical conditions may be at increased risk for severe disease." 

The State Department raised its Italy advisory one step to its second-highest level, 3 ("Reconsider travel").

– Jayme Deerwester

CDC gives OK for states to test

In the U.S., Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Friday that the CDC has determined that state and local health officials can go ahead and use testing kits initially believed to be inadequate. She said the CDC has since determined that despite missing one of three components, the kits are sufficient for accurate testing and will serve as the model of new kits.

“Labs can start testing with existing CDC test kits ... This will increase testing capacity at state and local health departments,” she said. “Additionally, CDC has manufactured brand new test kits.”

She said thee CDC was moving "as quickly as possible" to get kits to state and local authorities.

– Doug Stanglin

Dow reels as virus anxiety grows

U.S. stocks tumbled further Friday, deepening this week’s global rout on fears that a deadly virus in China is spreading.

The Dow Jones industrial average plunged 900 points shortly after the opening bell, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 slid 2.5%. The Nasdaq Composite dropped 1.7%.

The Dow plummeted nearly 1,200 points on Thursday – its biggest one-day point drop ever – on rising anxiety over the outbreak. Thursday's losses put the blue-chip average into a correction – a decline of 10% from a recent high – for the first time since December 2018.

The S&P 500 fell 4.4% Thursday, down 12% from its Feb. 19 all-time high. Following Thursday’s losses, the Dow and S&P 500 were down more than 10.5% so far this week, heading for their worst weekly performance since the financial crisis in 2008.

– David Brinkherhoff

Diamond Princess passenger dies

A bus carrying passengers, who will board the Qantas aircraft chartered by the Australian government, from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship drive at the Daikoku Pier on February 19, 2020 in Yokohama, Japan.

A British man has become the fifth person to die after spending time quarantined on Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed in an emailed statement to USA TODAY. He's the first person from his country to die from the virus. 

David Oliver and Morgan Hines

Whistleblower says HHS workers weren't prepared for evacuees

Federal workers did not have the necessary protective gear or training when they were sent to help quarantined Americans who were evacuated from China during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a government whistleblower complaint.

The complaint alleges employees with the Department of Health and Human Services were sent to Travis and March Air Force bases in California without full protective gear and training on how to protect themselves in a viral hot zone.

While helping the evacuees, team members noticed that workers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were in full gear to protect them from getting sick whereas they had no respirator masks, only gloves and masks at times.

The team consisted of about 14 employees who had been deployed to help connect the evacuees with government assistance from mid-January until early February.

The complaint was first reported by the Washington Post, which was told by the whistleblower’s lawyers that workers didn’t show any symptoms of infection and weren’t tested for the virus.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., who said the whistleblower contacted his office, said the whistleblower also alleged retaliation by superiors for having filed the complaint.

What does this mean? First coronavirus case of unknown origin confirmed in US

Gomez’s office said the complaint was filed by a high-ranking official at the Administration for Children and Families, a social service agency with HHS.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal watchdog agency that investigates personnel issues, confirmed Thursday that it had received the complaint and opened a case. HHS said it was “evaluating the complaint.”

Is it too late? Experts struggled to fend off the coronavirus outbreak and avoid pandemic

New York wants CDC approval to test for coronavirus

Health officials in New York are pushing for federal government approvals to start testing for the coronavirus at state and New York City labs.

Currently, health agencies in New York are shipping out suspected coronavirus samples for testing conducted by the CDC. So far, 27 test results have come back negative and one case in New York City was pending Friday morning.

“One of the issues we now have is it takes a couple of days to get the testing results back,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “If we could accelerate that by doing testing in this state and the CDC allowed that it would be very helpful.”

New York state health officials have also independently worked to develop and validate a test using the CDC protocol. They are currently seeking Food and Drug Administration approval to start using that testing in New York and to provide testing for other Northeast states, if necessary, according to Cuomo’s office.

– David Robinson, USA TODAY Network New York

BTS, Green Day cancel shows in Asia 

BTS, Green Day and the National Symphony Orchestra are canceling their upcoming concert dates in Asia amid coronavirus concerns.

“We regret to announce that the BTS MAP OF THE SOUL TOUR ... has been cancelled,” the K-pop group’s agency Big Hit Entertainment said in a statement. 

Green Day, which was scheduled to perform in Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan starting in March as part of its Hella Mega Tour, followed suit. On Friday, the group announced it's nixing tour dates in Asia.

The National Symphony Orchestra, meanwhile, canceled the five remaining performances in Japan, citing a recommendation from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that major cultural events be canceled for the next two weeks.

– Anika Reed

California monitoring 8,400 people for coronavirus

Across California, more than 8,400 people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus after traveling to Asia are being monitored, Gov. Gavin Newsomsaid Thursday during a press conference.

State and federal health officials are also moving quickly to locate everyone who came in contact with a Northern California woman believed to be the first in the U.S. to contract the coronavirus with no known connection to travel abroad or other known cases.

The woman lived in Solano County, home to the Travis Air Force Base, where dozens of people infected in China or on cruise ships have been treated. There was no evidence the woman had any connection to the base, said California Department of Public Health Director Sonia Angels during a press conference with Newsom Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, officials in San Francisco and in Santa Clara and San Diego counties have issued emergency declarations aimed at preparing the areas for an outbreak. 

Does the Pope have the coronavirus?

Pope Francis has apparently come down with a cold. While the Vatican hasn’t confirmed what the 83-year-old pontiff has, he was seen coughing and blowing his nose during Ash Wednesday Mass this week.

He also canceled a planned trip across town to celebrate Mass with Rome priests and his official audiences on Friday.

His illness comes amid an outbreak of the virus in Italy that has sickened more than 650 people, almost all of them in the north. Rome had three cases, but all three recovered.

Japan travel warning: Tokyo Disneyland to close 

People pass beneath an archway leading to Tokyo Disneyland on the day it announced it will close until March 15 because of concerns over the COVID-19 virus. A growing number of events and sporting fixtures are being cancelled or postponed around Japan while some businesses are closing or asking their employees or work from home. Feb. 28, 2020

Tokyo Disneyland said Friday that it would close for two weeks as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus in Japan, one day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked schools nationwide to close for most of March.

The park will be closed beginning Saturday with plans to reopen March 15. In a statement on its website, the park cited the elevated risk of infection in crowded venues.   

The closures come as the number of cases in Japan continues to climb. According to data from Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, there have been 228 cases, not counting the 705 cases and four deaths from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama. 

"The coming week or two is an extremely important time,” Abe said Thursday as he asked elementary, middle and high schools to shut down. “This is to prioritize the health and safety of the children and take precautions to avoid the risk of possible large-scale infections.”

– Jayme Deerwester

Contributing: Marco della Cava, USA TODAY; Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar, Associated Press. Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus updates: HHS whistleblower, Pope, Diamond Princess death