Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington, about the federal government's response to a virus outbreak originating in China that has has sickened thousands and killed more than 100.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington, about the federal government's response to a virus outbreak originating in China that has has sickened thousands and killed more than 100. Patrick Semansky/AP

Featured eBooks
Life After Government
Securing the Government Cloud
The Cybersecurity Challenge
How Federal Agencies Are Responding to the New Coronavirus Outbreak

CDC and the White House are tapping $105 million for initial efforts while deploying employees around the country.

The Trump administration has deployed federal workers around the country to respond to an outbreak of a new coronavirus, though top officials are cautioning Americans not to panic as nearly all cases remain in China. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deployed employees for enhanced screening of individuals returning from the impacted region of China at 20 U.S. airports, officials said on Tuesday. The agency has already deployed teams to Washington state, Illinois, California and Arizona to assist with the five American patients who have so far contracted the virus and make recommendations to their doctors and the state health departments. 

All testing for the novel coronavirus is taking place at CDC. The agency has received or is awaiting 165 specimens from patients under investigation in the United States. In addition to the five positive tests, 68 have come back negative while an additional 92 are pending. The patients are located in 36 states. 

The State Department has recalled all the employees it had in Hubei province where the outbreak began, sending a private plane to take them and their family members back to the United States. CDC and State this week elevated China to a level three travel advisory—meaning Americans should avoid traveling there—while elevating the Hubei province to a level four, do-not-travel advisory. State and the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families are coordinating efforts to repatriate families back to the U.S. as necessary. A plane of 195 Americans who were located in Hubei returned to California on Wednesday, where they are being held in airport quarantine for further evaluation. None have demonstrated any symptoms, but they are being monitored by a group of 20 CDC employees. 

The National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration are working on the longer-term project of developing vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. There is not yet any proven therapy to treat the virus. While officials suggested there is still little cause for concern as the virus has yet to spread within the United States, NIH is taking all precautions. 

“We are proceeding as if we will have to deploy a vaccine,” Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told reporters on Tuesday. “In other words, we are looking at a worst [case] scenario that this becomes a bigger outbreak.” 

CDC is working with the Office of Management and Budget in the White House to tap $105 million in funds available for immediate response efforts. 

The Homeland Security Department is also playing a role in addressing the virus. Customs and Border Protection is helping to administer screenings of passengers returning from flagged regions, while TSA is helping to spread awareness to travelers about the risk of disease. Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is working with HHS on a variety of preparedness efforts. 

HHS Secretary Alex Azar said his workforce is ready to address whatever issues arise, adding that he has briefed senior officials within the department and at the White House each day since the outbreak began. 

“Preparedness is a day job around here,” Azar said. “We are constantly making investments, training personnel at all levels, carrying out simulations and exercises, and sharing information.” 

Azar added that CDC is hoping to deploy a team to China to work on scene to examine raw data and “help design the studies and analytics that are needed.” The secretary said his agency would help on a bilateral basis or through the World Health Organization. The Chinese government later agreed to accept WHO assistance and Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Friday she expects members of her team to be a part of that effort. Azar did not rule out instituting a travel ban on individuals coming to the United States from China, saying it was important to leave all options on the table.  

HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response is currently assessing the Strategic National Stockpile for potential deployment of emergency pharmaceutical reserves, Azar said. Earlier this month, CDC created an Incident Management Structure to coordinate its response to the virus.