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Tensions rise as US death toll from coronavirus reaches 9

Tony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, speaks to President Donald Trump during a tour of the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center March 3, 2020, in Bethesda, Maryland. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

(AP) — Tensions over how to contain the coronavirus escalated Tuesday
in the United States as the death toll climbed to nine and lawmakers
expressed doubts about the government’s ability to ramp up testing fast
enough to deal with the crisis.

All of the deaths have occurred in
Washington state, and most were residents of a nursing home in suburban
Seattle. The number of infections in the U.S. overall climbed past 100,
scattered across at least 15 states, with 27 cases in Washington alone.

“What is happening now in the United States may be the beginning
of what is happening abroad,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, noting that in China, where the
outbreak began more than two months ago, older and sicker people are
about twice as likely to become seriously ill as those who are younger
and healthier. Most cases have been mild.

The nursing home
outbreak apparently seeded the first case in North Carolina, authorities
said. A Wake County resident who had visited the Washington state
nursing home tested positive but is in isolation at home and is doing
well, according to the North Carolina governor’s office.

suburban Seattle, 27 firefighters and paramedics who responded to calls
at the nursing home were tested for the virus Tuesday using a drive-thru
system set up in a hospital parking area.

firefighter Kevin Grimstad took care of two patients Jan. 29 at Life
Care Center in Kirkland. He is among 10 from the Kirkland Fire
Department who developed symptoms after calls to the nursing facility.

his wife and 6-month-old son have taken turns recovering from fevers,
coughs and congestion. They’re all feeling better, but wish they knew
more about the virus.

“It’s crazy. A couple of weeks ago, it
seemed like a foreign thing and now we’re getting tested,” Grimstad
said. “If I was exposed a month ago, the problem is more widespread than
we know.”

In the nation’s capital, officials moved on a number of fronts.

A bipartisan $7.5 billion emergency bill to fund the government’s response to the outbreak worked its way through Congress.

Federal Reserve announced the biggest interest-rate cut in over a
decade to try to fend off damage to the U.S. economy from the factory
shutdowns, travel restrictions and other disruptions around the globe.
On Wall Street, stocks rallied briefly on the news, then went into
another steep slide, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing 785
points on the day, or 2.9%.

“We have seen a broader spread of the
virus. So, we saw a risk to the economy and we chose to act,” Fed
Chairman Jerome Powell said.

Also, the Food and Drug and
Administration sought to ease a shortage of face masks by giving health
care workers the OK to use an industrial type of respirator mask
designed to protect construction crews from dust and debris.

on Capitol Hill expressed skepticism about U.S. health officials’
claims that testing for the new virus should be widely available soon.
CDC test kits delivered to states and cities in January proved faulty.

Authorities have said labs across the country should have the capacity to run as many as 1 million tests by the end of the week.

testing so far has faced delays and missteps, and “I’m hearing from
health professionals that’s unrealistic,” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray
of Washington state said at a Senate hearing.

The chief of the
Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said the FDA has been
working with a private company to get as many as 2,500 test kits out to
labs by the end of the week. Each kit should enable a lab to run about
500 tests, he said. But health officials were careful about making

“I am optimistic, but I want to remain humble,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC.

Washington state, researchers believe the virus may have been
circulating undetected for weeks. That has raised fears that there could
be hundreds of undiagnosed cases in the area.

But some people
who want to be tested for the virus in the state are encountering
confusion, a lack of testing options and other problems as health
authorities scramble to deal with the crisis.

“The people across
my state are really scared. I’m hearing from people who are sick, who
want to get tested and don’t know where to go,” Murray said. “It’s
unacceptable that people in my state can’t even get an answer as to
whether or not they are infected.”

One lab was already testing for coronavirus in Washington state and a second was scheduled to begin doing so Tuesday.

the rising fears, a school district north of Seattle closed for
training on conducting remote lessons via computer in case schools have
to be shut down for an extended period, while a private school said it
would conduct online-only classes through the end of March.

“We do
not feel it is prudent to wait until there is a known case to take
action,” the school, Eastside Prep in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland,
said on its website.

A Department of Homeland Security facility
just south of Seattle instructed all its employees to work from home
after a worker became ill after visiting the nursing home at the center
of the outbreak.

An Amazon employee in Seattle tested positive for the new virus, The Seattle Times reported, citing a message from the company.

around the world, the crisis continued to ebb in China, where hundreds
of patients were released from hospitals and new infections dropped to
just 125 on Tuesday, the lowest in several weeks. But the crisis seemed
to shift westward, with alarmingly fast-growing clusters of infections
and deaths in South Korea, Iran and Italy.

Worldwide, more than
92,000 people have been sickened and 3,100 have died, the vast majority
of them in China. Most cases have been mild.

“What China shows is that early containment and identification of cases can work, but we now need to implement that in other countries,” said Dr. Nathalie MacDermott, an infectious-diseases expert at King’s College London.

Associated Press writer Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia, Washington. The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.