CDC confirms the first US coronavirus case of ‘unknown’ origin

UC Davis Medical Center (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

UC Davis Medical Center (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For the first time, a US patient has contracted novel coronavirus with no clue as to where it came from.

The California patient didn’t travel anywhere known to have the virus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. And the patient wasn’t exposed to anyone known to be infected.

That means this could be the first US case of “community spread” of the virus, when the source of the infection is unknown.

The Solano County resident was taken to UC Davis Medical Center last week but wasn’t tested for coronavirus until Sunday, according to a letter sent Wednesday to UC Davis staff and obtained by CNN.

UC Davis had requested coronavirus testing for the patient, but the patient “did not fit the existing CDC criteria” for such testing, the letter said.

The mysterious nature of this case is significant, said Dr. Dean Blumberg, an infectious disease specialist at UC Davis Medical Center.

“That suggests that the virus is out there in the community, and that means pretty much that everybody’s at risk,” he told KCRA. “We don’t know who might be carrying it. We don’t know who we can get it from.”

As for whoever passed the virus to the UC Davis patient, “that other person probably exposed other people,” Blumberg said.

“And you have to realize that this virus is so new, that none of us have any immunity to it. So, anybody who’s exposed is at high risk of getting infected with this.”

Health officials are now trying to trace those who may have been in contact with the UC Davis patient.

“We currently have people in the field working in the community from the local, from the state and also from the CDC,” said Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health.

“They’re contacting any individuals who might have been exposed, and they’re isolating them.”

But Angell emphasized “the risk to the general public remains low.”

The United States has 60 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.

  • 42 are former passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the site of a recent outbreak and quarantine.
  • 3 are Americans recently repatriated from Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak.
  • 1 patient at UC Davis Medical Center contracted the illness through unknown means.
  • Most of the other 14 patients either had recently been to China or are a spouse of someone who recently returned from China.

‘Simply inadequate’ number of test kits so far

There’s been a strain on testing capabilities since the novel coronavirus was first detected in the United States last month.

In the early weeks of the virus, the CDC was the only facility in the United States that could test for the virus.

Since then, coronavirus test kits have been shipped to labs across the country, but some produced inconclusive results. The CDC said it would remake parts of the test kits.

The UC Davis patient was transferred from another California hospital February 19 with a suspected viral infection, the university hospital’s letter said.

UC Davis said it requested CDC testing for COVID-19, the formal name of the virus, because neither Sacramento County nor the California Department of Public Health were conducting testing.

“Since the patient did not fit the existing CDC criteria for COVID-19, a test was not immediately administered,” the letter says. “UC Davis Health does not control the testing process.”

The CDC ordered testing Sunday and results came back positive Wednesday, the letter says.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at least 8,400 people have been monitored locally, but the number of test kits his state has received isn’t enough.

“We have just 200 kits, and that’s for not just the traditional diagnostic, but also surveillance. It’s simply inadequate,” Newsom said Thursday. “But no longer will that be the case. … We have been assured of our capacity to significantly, exponentially increase the capacity to test.”

By this weekend, 93 labs across the United States are expected to have testing capabilities, Azar said Thursday. And as many as 70 companies are vying to develop a “bedside diagnostic” test for hospital use.

The US Food and Drug Administration has authorized a two-step test for the novel coronavirus that will allow labs other than the CDC to test for the virus, Azar said.

Previously, the process for testing involved three steps. The third step had been causing inconclusive results, Azar said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, “the FDA authorized the use of those tests by using just the first and second step (to) provide a definitive diagnostic,” Azar said. “Forty labs are qualified to already be doing that.”

CDC says Americans’ lives may be disrupted

If the California case does turn out to be community spread, hospital staff will need to alter the way they evaluate sick patients, one health care executive said.

Hospitals receiving patients with flu-like symptoms have been asking people to detail their travel history or exposure to anyone who has recently traveled, said Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, chief clinical officer and executive vice president of Providence St. Joseph Health.

“Now, we’re going to have to be thinking: How do we change that strategy? Who all do we need to be testing for coronavirus? Right now, during flu season, that would be a lot of people, and so we need to figure out how we can scale up the testing and the screening,” she said.

Providence St. Joseph Health operates 51 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics across the country.

People should understand their lives may be disrupted, she said.

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad,” she said.

If that’s the case, it’s “problematic” that there are only 12 US labs other than the CDC with working coronavirus test kits, Compton-Phillips said.

“There’s a very limited number of them,” she said.

US is testing treatment

Meanwhile, a clinical trial is underway at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha to evaluate how effective an antiviral drug would be on people diagnosed with coronavirus, the National Institutes of Health said.

There have been at least 82,056 confirmed cases worldwide and at least 2,800 deaths — the vast majority in China.

The drug being tested in the trial, remdesivir, was previously tested in humans for Ebola and in animals for MERS and SARS.

There are also clinical trials of the drug going on in China, the NIH said, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases developed the American study to match those studies.

The first participant in the Omaha trial is an American who was evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Participants will receive 200 milligrams of remdesivir intravenously when they’re enrolled and another 100 while they’re hospitalized for up to 10 days in total. A placebo group will receive a solution that resembles remdesivir but contains only inactive ingredients, the NIH said.

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