As the Trump administration works to get on the same page to prepare for the likely outbreak of COVID-19 novel coronavirus inside the United States, on Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first domestic case of “unknown” origin — meaning that the patient had no known exposure to the virus through international travel, or close contact with a person who was known to be infected.
“At this time, the patient’s exposure is unknown,” the CDC said in a statement. “It’s possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19, which would be the first time this has happened in the United States. Community spread means spread of an illness for which the source of infection is unknown. It’s also possible, however, that the patient may have been exposed to a returned traveler who was infected.” The patient brings the total number of cases detected within the United States to 15.
The patient, a resident of Solano County in the northeast San Francisco Bay, is currently being treated at the University of California, Davis Medical Center, and was first transferred there last Wednesday, February 19. Health officials are reportedly tracing the contacts of the patient to determine how they may have become infected, and who else could be at risk of exposure.
A statement released by the UC Davis Medical Center reveals a concerning lack of coordination between the CDC and local health officials. According to the hospital, there was a five-day delay between their request for COVID-19 testing and the CDC followthrough; after administering the test, it took three days to hear back that the patient was positive. As New York’s Chas Danner notes, the CDC’s current capacity for coronavirus testing is in a woeful state:
While the U.S. has tested fewer than 500 cases, U.K. health officials have conducted more than 7,100 coronavirus tests as of Wednesday, confirming 13 positive cases, and U.K. authorities have announced aggressive plans to test thousands more, including drive-thru coronavirus testing. South Korea, which is battling the largest known outbreak outside of China, already has drive-thru testing in place and the country’s health officials have already conducted more than 30,000 coronavirus tests — mostly within the last week. And just one province in Canada, Ontario, has already conducted more tests (629) than in the entire U.S.
There are combination of factors limiting U.S. testing capacity, including guidelines limiting the surveillance and detection of potential coronavirus cases; an inadequate supply of coronavirus tests, due in part to regulatory hurdles; and ongoing problems at the CDC as it tries to develop and distribute an accurate test to the labs that need it.
While in this instance the CDC appears to have had an issue navigating an overwhelmed system while coordinating with local health officials, the agency also has had trouble getting through to the White House. During Trump’s Wednesday conference — which began moments before the CDC announced the first unknown origin case of coronavirus — the president said that he does not think that the spread of the virus is “inevitable.” The day before, the agency described outbreaks within the U.S. as “inevitable.”