NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES - Twenty-one people aboard a cruise ship that was barred from docking in San Francisco have tested positive for coronavirus, U.S. officials said on Friday, as half a dozen states reported their first cases of the fast-spreading respiratory disease.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is running the White House’s response to the outbreak, said at a news conference that 19 crew members and two passengers out of 46 people tested so far on the Grand Princess ship had the virus.
He said the vessel with about 3,500 passengers and crew would be taken to a non-commercial port where everyone on board would be tested.
U.S. President Donald Trump said he would rather have passengers remain on board the vessel, but that he would let others decide if they can disembark.
“I’d rather have them stay on, personally, but I fully understand if they want to take them off,” Trump told reporters after touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
Allowing passengers onto U.S. soil who might be infected would push up the number of coronavirus cases in the country, he said.
“I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” Trump said.
Keeping passengers quarantined aboard a coronavirus-hit ship proved to be a disastrous strategy in Japan, leading to one of the world’s biggest outbreaks.
Trump earlier signed a bill to provide US$8.3 billion to bolster the country’s capacity to test for coronavirus and fund other measures to stem an outbreak that has now killed 15 Americans.
On Friday, seven states - Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Carolina - reported their first cases, meaning more than half of the 50 U.S. states now have the virus.
Word of the new cases capped a week during which the virus began to disrupt daily life for many Americans.
In Seattle, the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak, there were school closures and orders to work from home. In areas less affected by the outbreak, music festivals, conferences and sports events were canceled or curtailed as a precaution.
In the most high profile cancellation, the South by Southwest (SXSW) music and technology festival in Austin, Texas, was called off on Friday.
The respiratory illness emerged in China and has spread to more than 90 nations, killing more than 3,400 people and infecting more than 100,000 worldwide.
As stocks plunge and U.S. companies grapple with the economic fallout, the Trump administration is weighing tax relief for the deeply affected cruise, travel and airline industries, according to a source familiar with the plan.
Americans divided on dangers
Americans are sharply divided over the dangers of the new coronavirus, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Critics of Trump, including Democratic lawmakers, have accused the president of downplaying the significance of the outbreak for political reasons. He has said the risk to Americans is low.
Washington’s King County has been the hardest hit area in the United States with at least a dozen of the nation’s 15 coronavirus deaths, several of whom were people living at a nursing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.
The University of Washington announced on Friday that all classes would be held virtually for the rest of the winter term to limit contagion.
Apple Inc on Friday asked staff at its Silicon Valley headquarters to work from home if possible as a “precaution.” Gap Inc closed its New York headquarters because one employee had tested positive.
In Maryland, the focus was on a patient with coronavirus who attended a public event last Saturday at a retirement community in the Washington suburb of Rockville and came into contact with as many as 100 people, Governor Larry Hogan said.
In Florida, officials canceled two Miami music festivals on Friday - Ultra and Calle Ocho - because of potential risk that coronavirus could spread at events with large crowds.
For similar reasons, the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament will go ahead at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this weekend but without spectators, the university said on Friday.
The crisis has hit stocks hard. The benchmark S&P 500 closed down another 1.7 percent on Friday, after falling nearly three percent the day before.
As new states report their first cases, others watched their tally grow. Cases in New York jumped to 44 from 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, adding that some 4,000 people in the state were under precautionary quarantine and 44 under mandatory quarantine.
But he also tried to stem any sense of panic.
“I think the anxiety and the fear is more of a problem than the virus,” Cuomo said.
Amid widespread criticism of not enough tests available for states in need, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that “some missteps” had initially slowed the distribution of tests, but said the overall response was going well.
“In the next couple of weeks we should be ratcheted up to get many more out,” Fauci said on NBC’s Today program.