In a telebriefing on the COVID-19 outbreak, Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at.
The definition has been revised “to meet the needs of this rapidly evolving situation,” she said. The new PUI definition includes travel to more geographic areas to reflect this past week’s marked uptick in coronavirus activity in Italy and Iran. In addition to these countries and China, recent travel to Japan or South Korea also constitutes an epidemiologic risk factor which, in conjunction with clinical features, warrant an individual being classified as a PUI. These five countries each now have widespread person-to-person transmission of the virus.
Dr. Messonnier left open the possibility that the PUI definition would continue to evolve if such transmission within communities becomes more common. Asked whether the small number of U.S. cases thus might be an artifact of low test volumes, she said, “We aggressively controlled our borders to slow the spread. This was an intentional U.S. strategy. The CDC has always had the capacity to test rapidly from the time the sequence was available. ...We have been testing aggressively.”
The original PUI definition, she explained, emphasized individuals with fever, cough, or trouble breathing who had traveled recently from areas with COVID-19 activity, in particular China’s Hubei province. “We have been most focused on symptomatic people who are closely linked to, or who had, travel history, but our criteria also allow for clinical discretion,” she said. “There is no substitute for an astute clinician on the front lines of patient care.”
The first COVID-19 case from person-to-person spread was reported on Feb. 27. “At this time, we don’t know how or where this person became infected,” said Dr. Messonnier, although investigations are still underway. She responded to a question about whether the CDC delayed allowing COVID-19 testing for the patient for several days, as was reported in some media accounts. “According to CDC records, the first call we got was Feb. 23,” when public health officials in California reported a severely ill person with no travel abroad and no known contacts with individuals that would trigger suspicions for coronavirus. The CDC recommended COVID-19 testing on that day, she said.
Dr. Messonnier declined to answer questions about a whistleblower report alleging improper training and inadequate protective measures for Department of Health & Human Services workers at the quarantine center at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.
Dr. Messonnier said that the CDC has been working closely with the Food and Drug Administration to address problems with the COVID-19 test kits that were unusable because of a large number of indeterminate results. The two agencies together have determined that of the three reactions that were initially deemed necessary for a definitive COVID-19 diagnosis, just two are sufficient, so new kits that omit the problematic chemical are being manufactured and distributed.
These new kits are rapidly being made available; the goal, said Dr. Messonnier, is to have to state and local public health departments equipped with test kits by about March 7.
As local tests become available, the most updated information will be coming from state and local public health departments, she stressed, adding that the CDC would continue to update case counts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week. Procedures are being developed for the management of patients presumed to have COVID-19, where local health departments see positive tests but the mandatory CDC confirmatory test hasn’t been completed.
While new cases emerge across Europe and Asia, China’s earlier COVID-19 explosion seems to be slowing. “It’s really good news that the case counts in China are decreasing,” both for the well-being of that country’s citizens, and as a sign of the disease’s potential global effects, said Dr. Messonnier. She added that epidemiologists and mathematical modelers are parsing case fatality rates as well.
She advised health care providers and public health officials to keep abreast of changes in CDC guidance by checking frequently at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.