California declares coronavirus emergency amid worries about cruise ship passengers

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LOS ANGELES — Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the novel coronavirus after a California man who had contracted it during a cruise died.

Officials were now trying to locate others who were on the ship to determine whether they might have also contracted the virus.

The virus has now been reported in 12 counties in the state and has sickened more than 50 people.

Newsom said he felt confident that the state could contain the spread of the virus by passengers of the cruise who had already returned to California.

“We have the resources,” Newsom said. “We have the capacity. By this evening, we will have contacted every county health official that has someone who came off this cruise. They will have their contact information and begin a process to contact those individuals.”

Newsom said his declaration is intended to help California prepare for and contain the spread of the coronavirus by allowing state agencies to more easily procure equipment and services, share information on patients and alleviate restrictions on the use of state-owned properties and facilities.

“This proclamation, I want to point out, is not about money,” Newsom said of the emergency declaration. “It’s about resourcefulness. It’s about our ability to add tools to the tool kit.”

Placer County public health officials announced that a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from a cruise to Mexico last month died. The individual was an elderly adult with underlying health conditions and was the county’s second confirmed case of COVID-19, reported Tuesday night. Officials said close contacts of the patient were being quarantined and monitored for the illness.

The person’s likely exposure occurred during travel on a Princess cruise ship that departed Feb. 10 from San Francisco and sailed to Mexico, returning Feb. 21, officials said.

The patient tested positive Tuesday and had been placed in isolation at Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center.

The person probably had minimal community exposure between returning from the cruise and arriving at the hospital by ambulance Thursday, health officials said. Ten Kaiser Permanente health care workers and five emergency responders, who were exposed before the patient was put in isolation, are now in quarantine.

None of those 15 workers is exhibiting symptoms, officials said.

It’s possible that other cruise passengers may have been exposed, officials said. Placer County Public Health is working closely with Sacramento County Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify and contact other cruise passengers.

By one estimate, more than 50% of the roughly 2,500 passengers who traveled from San Francisco to Mexico and back on the cruise ship with the Placer County victim are Californians, Newsom said.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of this patient,” Placer County health officer Dr. Aimee Sisson said. “While we have expected more cases, this death is an unfortunate milestone in our efforts to fight this disease, and one that we never wanted to see.

“While most cases of COVID-19 exhibit mild or moderate symptoms, this tragic death underscores the urgent need for us to take extra steps to protect residents who are particularly vulnerable to developing more serious illness, including elderly persons and those with underlying health conditions.”

Sisson said the resident first developed symptoms while on the cruise and continued to show symptoms while traveling through the Port of San Francisco.

The individual called 911 and was taken to the hospital Thursday, then tested for COVID-19 on Sunday. The results returned positive Tuesday, and the patient died Wednesday morning, Sisson said.

Placer County has six pending tests for COVID-19, and Sisson said she expects to see cases of community transmission soon.

“I urge Placer County residents to be vigilant and to take steps to protect themselves,” Sisson said. “Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. … We are not at the point where I would consider canceling events, closing schools or requiring widespread distancing measures, but we do want the public to prepare for that possibility.”

Sisson recommended that residents have two weeks of supplies on hand in case they are asked to quarantine.

Rocklin Fire Chief Bill Hack said emergency responders are wearing protective masks and goggles when responding to 911 calls until it is clear whether a person has respiratory symptoms that could indicate COVID-19. Three of the five emergency responders who have been quarantined related to the Placer County death are Rocklin city firefighters.

“They’re obviously being hypervigilant that if they start to become symptomatic they know what to look for and they know what steps to take,” Hack said. “They’re in good spirits at this point.”

Placer County is requesting that any other individuals who were on the Princess cruise to Mexico self-quarantine.

Princess Cruises said it was notified by the CDC that it is investigating a small cluster of cases in Northern California among guests who sailed on the Grand Princess Mexican voyage.

The company said 62 guests on that voyage remained onboard for a current trip to Hawaii. In an abundance of caution, these guests and other possible close crew contacts have been asked to remain in their staterooms until screened by the ship’s medical team. That cruise has been cut short and will return to San Francisco.

Newsom addressed the death shortly after the announcement.

“Jennifer and I extend our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones affected by this death in Placer County,” he said in a statement. “The state is working with federal officials to follow up on contact tracing of individuals that may have been exposed to provide treatment and protect public health.

“This case demonstrates the need for continued local, state and federal partnership to identify and slow the spread of this virus. California is working around the clock to keep our communities safe, healthy and informed.”

Newsom previously requested that the Legislature make $20 million available for the state to respond to the coronavirus and announced the California Department of Public Health is dipping into its reserves of millions of N95 masks to distribute to health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus fights.

Newsom said Wednesday that a coronavirus lab test is now considered an essential benefit covered by government-sponsored health plans and private insurers. The governor added he is also extending price-gouging protections in response to Amazon vendors taking advantage of people seeking hand sanitizer and other in-demand goods.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, declared a health emergency Wednesday as the number of coronavirus cases in the county increased to seven, including six new patients.

None of the new cases is believed to be “community spread,” officials said. All individuals were exposed to COVID-19 through close contacts with others who were infected.

The additional cases were confirmed Tuesday night. Officials said three of the new cases were travelers who had visited northern Italy, two were family members who had close contact with a person outside of the county who was infected, and one had a job that put them in contact with travelers.

One patient has been hospitalized, and the others are isolated at home.

Los Angeles County will increase its capacity for testing of the virus at its public health laboratory. Officials will begin daily radio briefings for the public, post new guidelines for schools and colleges, and over the next week will send “technical assistance teams” to make site visits to temporary housing facilities including homeless shelters.

Officials urged the public to frequently wash their hands, opt for verbal salutations in place of hugs and handshakes and try to maintain a distance of 6 feet from strangers.

“We have to be prepared. We have to protect the well-being of our loved ones and our neighbors,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

Officials said they had tested more than two dozen people for COVID-19 before these recent test results came back positive and reiterated that there had been no sign of community spread in the county.

“I want to reassure everyone — we are not there today,” L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.

A screener of incoming flights from China and surrounding countries at Los Angeles International Airport is among the new cases that have tested positive for coronavirus in L.A. County, according to two sources familiar with the report.

The screener, who is attached to the CDC, last worked Feb. 21 at LAX and, after developing potential symptoms, alerted medical professionals and authorities. The person was formally identified Tuesday as having the COVID-19 virus and so far has a mild case and is isolated at home.

Dr. Mike Ryan, who runs WHO‘s emergencies program, pushed back against officials who wanted to “wave the white flag” and surrender to the disease’s hold. China took drastic steps to fight the virus, he said, and case numbers are now on the decline there.

Countries such as China and South Korea “implemented very, very strong measures that have affected their own economies and their own societies,” Ryan said. “It’s really a duty of others to use the time that has been bought.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there remained many unknowns about the virus, including the degree to which people who do not express symptoms can transmit it to others. He said doctors know that it happens but have not yet gauged the extent, a key piece of data that will help determine decisions on how to contain it.

Fauci said that Chinese data are believed to be accurate and that the spread of the virus there is slowing thanks to “draconian” methods that would never occur in the United States, including stringent travel and public gathering restrictions.

“They have taken social distancing to its furthest extreme,” he said.

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(Times staff writers Noah Bierman, Rong-Gong Lin II , Hannah Fry, Taryn Luna, Phil Willon, Richard Winton and Melody Gutierrez contributed to this report.)

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