Georgia to ramp up testing, screening after first cases of coronavirus

So far, there are more than 100 confirmed and presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Diagnoses continue to crop up around the country, including two family members in Georgia.

Some prominent infectious disease specialists are criticizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's response to the coronavirus outbreak, saying testing has been inadequate, as diagnoses continue to crop up around the country, including two family members in Georgia.

So far, there are more than 100 confirmed and presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States, including people in Washington, California, Florida and New York. Many of the diagnoses have come in the last week.

Fulton County health officials told reporters that the two confirmed coronavirus cases in Fulton County are a 56-year-old man who returned on Feb. 22 from a work trip to Milan, Italy, and his teenage son, who was infected by his father. They are both doing well and have minimal symptoms, according to health officials. The household also includes a wife and younger child who are in isolation and being monitored.

» THE LATEST: Complete coverage of coronavirus in Georgia

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Governor Brian Kemp addressed the newly formed Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

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Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said the CDC needs to expand testing around the country.

“I think it’s quite clear to many of us who are specialists in public health and infectious disease specialists, that we have thought for some time, we need much more widespread testing,” he said. “And yes, I think the numbers are higher. I don’t know how much higher, but we will start to see it as more people are tested.”

A series of missteps by the CDC has delayed diagnostic testing for coronavirus in Georgia and across the country.

CORONAVIRUS TIPS

CDC recommends preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases:

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

• Stay home when you are sick.

• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

• CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

• If you are concerned you might have the coronavirus, call your healthcare provider before going to a hospital or clinic. In mild cases, your doctor might give you advice on how to treat symptoms at home without seeing you in person, which would reduce the number of people you expose. But in more severe cases an urgent care center or hospital would benefit from advance warning because they can prepare for your arrival. For example, they may want you to enter a special entrance, so you don’t expose others.

Source: CDC

State health departments initially received flawed diagnostic kits from the agency, which made them unusable. That meant all testing had to be done at the CDC. Georgia health officials only recently received new test kits.

Schaffner called the problems with the test kits, “unfortunate.” But Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, was more harsh in his assessment, telling The New York Times, “the incompetence has really exceeded what anyone would expect with the CDC.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said last week it will allow hundreds of labs across the country, which include those run by universities and private companies, to also test for the virus.

About 15 people in Georgia have been tested for coronavirus, public health officials said.

Though members of the Fulton County family tested positive, the children are home schooled, limiting opportunities to expose others to the virus.

“Things are going well for the two folks who tested positive last night. They remain in home monitoring,” Gov. Brian Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a growing number of patients and doctors are complaining they can’t get testing.

Schaffner said he was recently contacted by a woman who had developed symptoms of an upper respiratory infection after traveling to Italy. He referred the patient to the Tennessee state laboratory, but officials there said she could not be tested because she did not meet the testing criteria at the time.

The CDC has tested 500 Americans with suspected infections, according to the most recent estimates available, while other countries have tested tens of thousands. And China, where the outbreak started, has reportedly tested millions.

Many people experience mild symptoms, such as a cough, or none at all. Because of that, experts said, many people may be unknowingly spreading the disease. That could mean explosive growth around the globe.

“That’s why the most important thing to do now for public health in the U.S. is to quickly find cases and, as rapidly as possible, try to contain them,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the CDC. “Given the day to day march we’re seeing, we do expect it’s going to be seen in many places very quickly. Whether it will be there for a long period of time or will be controlled, only time and our efforts will tell.”

In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has created the Mayor’s Pandemic Coordination Team to lead the city’s strategic plan if a pandemic erupts.

Kemp urged the public to remain calm. “Everyone remains at a low risk, as we said last night. And make sure to rely on information coming out of the governor’s office, the Department of Public Health and the CDC. There’s a lot of information flying out there, and some of it is not accurate.”

Up until recently in the U.S., the CDC only recommended testing people who have symptoms and have been to China or who have symptoms and have been in contact with a suspected or confirmed case. The CDC has expanded guidelines for coronavirus testing to include people with symptoms such as fever, cough and shortness of breath coupled with travel not only to China but also other high-risk areas, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.

Vice President Mike Pence said at a Monday afternoon press conference that all passengers on direct flights from Italy and South Korea will now be screened.

Flights from China are now restricted to only 7 U.S. airports, including Atlanta's airport.

Within the United States, there are no travel restrictions.

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey indicated health officials are not planning to get in touch with passengers on the flight with the Fulton County man who tested positive after his trip to Italy.

He did not exhibit symptoms until several days after returning to Georgia, she said.

The CDC says it’s possible for people to transmit COVID-19 while being asymptomatic, but believe infected people are most contagious when experiencing symptoms.

Handwashing is among the recommendations to avoid the coronavirus.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

— Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Ariel Hart contributed to this article.

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