US virus death toll hits 11; feds investigate nursing home

SEATTLE (AP) — Federal authorities announced an investigation of the Seattle-area nursing home at the centre of an outbreak of the new coronavirus as the United States (US) death toll climbed to 11, including the first fatality outside Washington state.

California Governor Gavin Newsom late on Wednesday declared a statewide emergency due to coronavirus. Washington and Florida had already declared emergencies, and Hawaii also joined them on Wednesday.

Washington also announced another death, bringing its total to 10. Most of those who died were residents of Life Care Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, a suburb east of Seattle. At least 39 cases have been reported in the Seattle area, where researchers said the virus may have been circulating undetected for weeks.

Seema Verma, Head of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the agency is sending inspectors to Life Care along with experts from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to figure out what happened and determine whether the nursing home followed guidelines for preventing infections.

Last April, the state fined Life Care USD67,000 over infection-control deficiencies following two flu outbreaks that affected 17 patients and staff. An unannounced follow-up inspection in June determined that Life Care had corrected the problems, Verma said. Meanwhile, public officials in Washington came under pressure to take more aggressive steps against the outbreak, including closing schools and cancelling large events. While the state and Seattle have declared emergencies, giving leaders broad powers to suspend activities, they have not issued any 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,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee said. “Right now, we are deferring to the judgment … of these organisations.”

While some individual schools and businesses have shut down, 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.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee tours the group of RV’s set-up for potential isolation and quarantine of COVID-19 patients in Grand Mound, Washington. PHOTO: AP