Several California counties reported new coronavirus cases Monday, as the nation’s death toll from the virus rose and the West Coast continued to bear the brunt of illnesses in the United States.

Washington state officials confirmed Monday that six people have died from the disease known as COVID-19, most of whom were linked to a nursing home outbreak in a Seattle suburb. No deaths have been reported elsewhere in the U.S. Nationwide, approximately 100 people have been infected with the virus so far.

At least five Northern California counties reported new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, bringing the total in California to nearly 50. Sonoma County declared a state of emergency in response to the outbreak.

Though the flurry of positive test results in recent days does reveal the virus is circulating within the United States, experts advised the public to avoid reading too much into those numbers.

Until late last week, federal officials were not allowing widespread testing for the virus, so many people who were already sick are only now being diagnosed, said Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch.

“Some of the numbers are changing because new things are happening, but a lot of the numbers are changing because we’re discovering things that have already happened,” Lipsitch said in a forum Monday hosted by Harvard’s public health school. “It’s really important to distinguish ‘Oh, goodness, there’s a new cluster’ from ‘Oh, goodness, we just discovered that there’s a cluster that’s been there for some time.’ ”

Worldwide, more than 90,000 people have been infected and 3,000 have died due to the virus that originated in China late last year. However, World Health Organization officials declined to declare the outbreak a pandemic on Monday because they said the virus was still severely affecting only a handful of countries.

Despite growing case counts in some parts of the world, there is still an opportunity to contain the virus, said World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Our message to all countries is this is not a one-way street — we can push this back,” Tedros said. “Our actions now will determine the course of this outbreak.”

Sonoma County declared a public health emergency after announcing two people had been diagnosed with the virus. One infected person returned from a cruise to Mexico 10 days ago and is now hospitalized, but the case “is a cause for concern,” said county health officer Dr. Celeste Philip.

Declaring a state of emergency will allow the county to respond properly to the outbreak as well as “work in tandem with our cities and healthcare providers to ensure we are prepared to combat an outbreak of COVID-19 in our communities,” Philip said in a statement.

Meanwhile, two new COVID-19 cases were reported in Santa Clara County, bringing its total to nine, the most of any California county. Both individuals are under home isolation, officials said.

Many initial reports of COVID-19 have been in healthcare workers, who are among the most likely to encounter sick patients. Hundreds of healthcare workers in California have already been asked to stay home due to contact with patients diagnosed with the disease over the last few weeks.

On Monday, Placer County reported a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a healthcare worker at NorthBay VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville, where a COVID-19 patient had been admitted. County spokeswoman Katie Combs Prichard said that the medical worker, who lives in Placer County, came into contact with that patient and was likely infected by her.

Strategies like quarantining people who may have been exposed to a virus can help stop it from spreading, experts say. The World Health Organization said the COVID-19 virus is unusual because though it is a respiratory pathogen that can spread widely in the community, it also appears possible to contain.

The flu cannot be as easily contained, said Mike Ryan, who runs the agency’s emergencies program.

“That offers us a glimmer, a chink of life that this virus can be suppressed and contained,” Ryan said at a briefing Monday.

In Orange County, firefighters from Engine Co. 20 have been placed in isolation “out of an abundance of caution” after they encountered a patient who had traveled internationally and was showing symptoms similar to coronavirus, authorities said Monday.

This isn’t the first time first responders have been exposed to the disease. In Seattle, more than 25 firefighters have been quarantined after visiting a nursing home that is at the center of a coronavirus outbreak, according to the International Assn. of Fire Fighters.

Paul Biddinger, director of emergency preparedness research at Harvard’s public health school, said that first responders such as firefighters need to remember to take basic measures such as washing their hands and avoiding touching their face.

“I understand when you’re out on an ambulance how hard it is to talk about hand hygiene or protection, but it’s extremely important,” Biddinger said during the Harvard forum.

Biddinger, who said he began his career working in emergency medical services, said that protocols for when to wear a mask or a gown will vary depending on where people are based. Local health officials need to collaborate with firefighters and other first responders to determine when donning such gear is appropriate, he said.

“If we do it too much, if we wear it for every case, we will run out, to be blunt,” he said. “If we don’t do it enough, we put our first responders at risk.”





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