March 16, 2020

CDC was late to alert state about Socorro couple who tested positive for COVID-19

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U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing March 12, 2020.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was late, according to one of New Mexico’s members of Congress, in notifying the state about a Socorro couple who returned to New Mexico from an Egypt cruise where COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus, was known to be present. The couple later tested positive for the virus.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland spoke about the issue during a recent House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the coronavirus.

Haaland said the CDC waited 10 days before alerting the state about the couple.

“Nobody notified the state or the health department about them being on a cruise ship where coronavirus was found. So they were in New Mexico, just doing their normal everyday life for ten entire days before the state was alerted to have them tested, and it turned out they were positive,” Haaland said during the hearing. “We’re of course worried. In a small town like that, the virus could spread pretty rapidly.”

States rely on the CDC to alert them when travelers arrive from areas where the coronavirus has been found. State health departments then use that information to follow-up with recent travelers and test them if needed.

But CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield told the House Oversight Committee that tracking down travelers is difficult.

“The complexity of tracking down people, whether it’s ships or planes — it’s a complicated issue,” Redfield said. “First you have to have accurate contact information. In the past, maybe 20 to 30 percent of the information we get is actionable. I’m happy to say now, we’re probably over 90 percent. We’re getting the manifests from cruise ships and working with local health departments to try to track down these individuals when we do have a confirmed case.”

The CDC has set up quarantine stations at 11 U.S. airports. U.S. travelers returning from areas with high incidence of COVID-19 are then rerouted through one of those airports, according to the New Mexico Department of Health spokesperson David Morgan.

“[The] CDC then advises New Mexico if a traveler from a high-incidence area is coming to our state,” Morgan told NM Political Report in an email. He added that the CDC does not otherwise conduct surveillance or tracking of travelers, and that it’s up to the state to further monitor travelers who have arrived from high-incidence areas.

Morgan was unable to confirm whether it took the CDC 10 days to alert the state about the Socorro couple, but did note a delay.

“The state was not alerted for some time,” Morgan said.

Morgan told NM Political Report that individuals who have recently traveled, and especially those who have recently traveled by airplane, should consider a self-quarantine for 14 days. He also said that any individuals who have traveled to or from affected areas in the past 14 days, or individuals who have been in direct contact with a person known to be positive for COVID-19, should also self-quarantine for 14 days.

The state says any individuals who have recently traveled and develop respiratory symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath or fever should call 855-600-3453 and press option 2.

“Everyone (not just those in Socorro) should follow these precautions: Wash your hands regularly with soap and water if available; if not, use sanitizer; cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue; stay home as much as possible; when you can’t stay home, practice social distancing — stay at least 6 feet from other people,” he said.

As of press time, there are currently no known cases of COVID-19 in Socorro beyond the initial couple.