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US announces US$8.3b in coronavirus funding as cases surge

[SAN FRANCISCO] US lawmakers passed an emergency US$8.3 billion spending bill to combat the coronavirus on Thursday as the number of cases surged in the country's northwest and deaths reached 11.

The Senate gave sweeping bipartisan support to the funding one day after the House passed the bill, so that it could be quickly sent to the White House for President Donald Trump's signature.

"The American people are looking for leadership, they want assurance their government is up to the task of protecting the health and safety," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy shortly before the bill's passage.

The amount is significantly higher than the US$2.5 billion President Donald Trump had initially requested, but he later said he was happy to accept more.

The US reported its first case of the disease in January and its first death on February 29 - both in the state of Washington in the country's Pacific Northwest.

Since then the toll has risen to 11 and the virus has spread to at least 14 states, infecting more than 180 people, according to an AFP tally.

On Thursday, Washington state officials announced a jump in cases, from 39 to 70. Ten of the 11 deaths have been reported there, with the other in California.

Some schools in the state have also decided to close for a couple weeks and hold classes online.

Vice President Mike Pence, the White House pointman on the crisis, was due to visit the state later in the day.

US officials have stressed that the overall risk to the public remains low and urged people not to panic or buy masks - which could create a shortage for people who get infected and require them.

The scientific literature shows that elderly people and those with underlying conditions are most at risk of a serious illness and the majority of deaths so far have occurred in a Seattle-area nursing home.

A cruise ship with 21 people who have symptoms was meanwhile being held off the coast of San Francisco as California, the state with the second highest number of cases, declared an emergency.

Thousands of people are traveling aboard the Grand Princess, the same cruise ship on which California's first victim was thought to have contracted the virus.

The Grand Princess belongs to Princess Cruises, the company that operated the coronavirus-stricken ship held off Japan last month on which more than 700 people tested positive.

REVISED MORTALITY RATEĀ 

A top federal health official earlier said the overall mortality rate for the novel coronavirus was estimated at one percent or less, lower than previously thought, basing the new figure on a high number of unreported cases.

It came after President Trump was criticised for saying he believed the World Health Organization's reported death rate of 3.4 per cent to be "false," based on a "hunch."

Mr Trump was invoking the fact the WHO figure is based on reported cases only, and as such the true lethality of the disease may only be understood better over time - a point on which health experts agree.

"The best estimates now of the overall mortality rate for Covid-19 is somewhere between 0.1 per cent and one per cent," Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health said at a news briefing.

"That's lower than you heard probably in many reports, why is this? Number one is because many people don't get sick and don't get tested - this reflects the overseas experience - so probably for every case, there are at least two or three cases that are not in that denominator.

"It certainly could be higher than normal flu, it probably is, but it's not likely in the range of two to three per cent."

The seasonal flu mortality rate is 0.1 to 0.15 per cent, said Adm Giroir.

AFP