WASHINGTON — Federal officials on Tuesday called for a team of Americans to be allowed to enter China and assist with the local response to the novel coronavirus outbreak there, an offer that U.S. officials say the Chinese government has not yet authorized since it was first extended three weeks ago.
A group of U.S. public health workers and scientific researchers is standing by to travel to China, according to health secretary Alex Azar, who said he and other officials have reiterated the offer twice to the Chinese government: once to the country’s health minister and again at a World Health Organization meeting in Beijing.
“We’re urging China: More cooperation and transparency are the most important steps you can take for a more effective response,” Azar said at a press conference.
Earlier on Tuesday, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping did agree to allow a team of WHO experts to enter the country “to work with Chinese counterparts on increasing understanding of the outbreak to guide global response efforts.”
Azar said he was “delighted” by the news, though it was not immediately clear whether personnel from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be included within the WHO group. The U.S. already has personnel embedded within China’s disease control office, Azar said, but he urged that more American personnel be allowed to take a more active role in addressing the outbreak.
At the briefing, Azar and other health officials stressed that the coronavirus outbreak did not present an imminent threat to Americans. Azar, smiling, dismissed the recent rash of Americans attempting to purchase face masks at pharmacies and convenience stores as “unnecessary.”
The disease outbreak, which is most severe in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has resulted in over 4,500 reported cases and at least 100 deaths in China. At least 14 territories and countries outside the Chinese mainland have reported cases as well, including five in the U.S.
CDC Director Robert Redfield was also careful to emphasize that the disease is not spreading within the U.S. And its transmission rate as measured in early research, he said, is substantially lower than for other infectious diseases, including measles.
American authorities announced Monday they would expand coronavirus screenings of passengers arriving from China at 20 airports, up from a list of five airports to which authorities had directed flights from Wuhan specifically.
“Americans should know that this is a potentially very serious public health threat,” Azar said. “But at this point, Americans should not worry for their own safety.”
Nonetheless, Azar said, the U.S. government stood ready to deploy all available tools for dealing with the outbreak, citing efforts to determine whether the disease could be transmitted even by individuals who have not displayed symptoms and tracking down contacts of individuals who have fallen ill.
“All options for dealing with infectious disease spread have to be on the table, including travel restrictions,” Azar said. “But diseases are not terribly good at respecting borders, so we would have to assess carefully whether the evidence recommends any steps beyond the thoroughly tested methods I just described.”