SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus climbed to 11 on Wednesday with a victim succumbing in California — the nation's first reported fatality outside Washington state — as officials, schools and businesses came under pressure to respond more aggressively to the outbreak.
Officials in Placer County, near Sacramento, said an elderly person who tested positive for COVID-19 Tuesday after returning from a San Francisco-to-Mexico cruise had died. The victim had underlying health problems, authorities said.
Washington state also announced another death, bringing its total to 10. Most of those who died were residents of a nursing home in Kirkland, a suburb east of Seattle. At least 31 cases have been reported in the Seattle area, where researchers say the virus may have been circulating undetected for weeks.
Public officials in Washington faced demands that they take more extensive measures, including closing schools and canceling large events. While the state and Seattle have declared emergencies, giving leaders broad powers to suspend activities, they have not issued any direct orders to do so.
“We have encouraged people who are responsible for large gatherings to give consideration whether it really makes sense to carry those on right now,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “Right now, we are deferring to the judgment ... of these organizations.”
While some individual schools and businesses have closed, the governor said large-scale school closings have not been ordered because “there are so many ramifications for families and businesses,” especially for health care workers who might not be able to go to work because of child care responsibilities. However, he said, the situation is fluid and he will consult with health experts.
Local and state health officials have not recommended school closings or cancellations of activities but said they respect the decisions of local school leaders.
Jennifer Hayles, 41, of Kirkland, the epicenter of Washington's outbreak, said she was appalled that Inslee and health officials haven't canceled next week's Emerald City Comic Con. The four-day cosplay and pop-culture event draws close to 100,000 people each year, and some participants, including D.C. Comics and Penguin Random House, have pulled out over the virus.
Hayles said she spent hundreds of dollars on tickets and other items related to the event but will have to skip it because she has a compromised immune system.
“There’s a lot of people who are talking about the economic cost of people forced to pull out of Comic Con, but if we have an explosion of cases of coronavirus, the economic cost is going to be much higher,” Hayles said.
Lakshmi Unni said that she was keeping her son, an eighth-grader at Redmond Middle School in Seattle's eastern suburbs, home on Wednesday, and that she had urged the school board and principal to close.
“Yesterday at least three kids were coughing,” Unni said. “We don’t know if they were sick with the virus, but if they do become sick, the chances of spreading are very, very high.”
Some schools and businesses aren't waiting.
School officials in Renton, south of Seattle, announced that Hazen High School will close for the rest of the week after a student tested positive for the coronavirus. Online petitions urged officials to also close other schools on Seattle's east side.
The F5 technology company closed its 44-story tower in downtown Seattle after learning an employee had been in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus. Outdoor recreation giant REI shut down its Seattle-area operations for two days as a precaution.
A federal immigration field office near Tukwila also closed after an employee visited the Life Care Center, the Kirkland nursing home. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the move was a precaution and the place will remain closed for 14 days.
Health officials in North Carolina reported that a person from Wake County tested positive for the illness after visiting the Kirkland nursing home. The patient's flight from the Seattle area to the Raleigh-Durham airport raised questions about whether other passengers were exposed to the virus.
"My understanding is we have the manifest. Now the trick is to go find them,” said Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Life Care Center said on its website that it is screening employees for symptoms before they start work and as they leave. The nursing home is prohibiting visits from family members,
Shortly before the California death was announced, Princess Cruise Lines notified passengers of its Grand Princess that federal health officials are investigating a "small cluster” of coronavirus cases connected to its mid-February voyage. It asked current passengers to stay in their cabins until they were cleared by medical staff, and said those who had been on the previous voyage should contact their doctor if they develop a fever or other symptoms.
The Grand Princess is at sea off Mexico and will return early to San Francisco, where CDC and company officials will meet to determine the course of action, the cruise line said.
AP writer Carla K. Johnson in Seattle contributed.