Coronavirus spurs U.S. to ramp up mask production, screen travelers after first death

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will start screening travelers for coronavirus and ramp up production of masks and test kits as the government scrambles to reassure Americans as the disease spreads and world stock markets tumbled last week.

The first American died from coronavirus, a man in his 50s with underlying conditions in Washington state, officials said Saturday. They still do not know how he contracted the disease. The state has two other “presumptive” cases at a long-term care facility where more than 50 residents and staff could show symptoms.

New cases were reported in the Chicago area and Rhode Island.

The Trump administration is scrambling to respond to the fast-spreading virus that originated in China through travel restrictions and widespread messaging on safety procedures, while working to avert public panic. About 70 cases have been reported in the United States.

Stock markets plunged last week, with an index of global stocks setting its largest weekly fall since the 2008 financial crisis, and more than $5 trillion wiped off the value of stocks worldwide.

President Donald Trump on Sunday said travelers from countries at high risk of coronavirus would be screened before boarding and upon arrival, without specifying which countries.

Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) on Sunday said it is suspending until May flights to Milan in northern Italy where most coronavirus cases have been reported. Flights will continue to Rome. American Airlines Group Inc (AAL.O) announced a similar move late on Saturday.

The United States has 75,000 test kits for coronavirus and will expand that number “radically” in coming weeks, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

Vice President Mike Pence said the government had contracted 3M Co (MMM.N) to produce an extra 35 million respiratory masks a month. He urged Americans not to buy the masks, which he said were only needed by healthcare workers. Honeywell International Inc (HON.N) is the other major U.S. mask producer.

He also told Fox News that clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine would start in six weeks but that a vaccine will likely not be available this season.

Democrats, who will challenge Trump for the presidency in the Nov. 3 election, have criticized the administration for downplaying the crisis and not preparing for the disease to spread in the United States.

Pence, whom Trump appointed last week to run the White House’s coronavirus response, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Americans should brace for more cases, but that the “vast majority” of those who contracted the disease would recover.

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“Other than in areas where there are individuals that have been infected with the coronavirus, people need to understand that for the average American, the risk does remain low. We’re ready,” Pence said told NBC.

The United States has imposed limits on travelers who have visited Iran and recommended against travel to hard-hit areas of Italy and South Korea.

Trump on Saturday said the United States was also considering shutting the country’s southern border with Mexico to control the spread of the virus.

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