Feb. 14 (UPI) -- A multi-national team of experts representing the World Health Organization is scheduled to arrive in China this weekend to assist in the COVID-19 response, officials said Friday.
The experts will join an advance team that arrived earlier this week and spent the past several days hammering out the mission goals and "scope of work" for the WHO in Hubei province, epicenter of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Although leaders of the organization said they would not provide specifics on team members -- including their countries of origin and qualifications -- until after they've arrived in Hubei, they indicated that the United States will have at least one representative.
"The joint mission is moving forward," Tedros Adhanom, WHO director general, said during a press briefing Friday.
Adhanom said the new arrivals will join their colleagues in conducting workshops with Chinese health officials to review data and on the outbreak and response. The expanded team will also make field visits to multiple clinical centers -- in both urban and rural areas -- throughout Hubei to assess screening and treatment efforts.
In addition, investigators will be working with Chinese public health experts to learn how the outbreak started, how the virus is transmitted and why some cases progress to severe disease.
It is believed that older adults, particularly men and those with compromised immune systems due to health problems like diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to suffer severe illness and are at increased risk of dying.
Earlier Friday, Chinese officials announced that more than 1,700 healthcare workers in the country had been sickened with COVID-19, and that six of them had died.
Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program, said most of the affected workers were infected "during the third and fourth week of January," when understanding of how the virus is transmitted was lower and before steps had been implemented to protect them, such as the use of masks and personal protective equipment.
"There has been a rapid fall off" of cases among health workers in the last two weeks, he added, because of increasing levels of training on the proper use of PPE.
"We still don't know how many of these cases were exposed unknowingly," Ryan noted, adding that a higher percentage of healthcare workers were infected during earlier coronavirus outbreaks, including MERS and SARS. "We've always known that health workers are at the front line. We have called again and again for the training and equipping of these workers because we understand the risks."
Ryan also responded to reports that the WHO had advised the International Olympic Committee against the cancellation of the 2020 Games in Tokyo, scheduled for this summer.
"We have not offered advice to the IOC one way or another, and neither would we," he said. The WHO's role is to "offer technical advice on risk, risk mitigation and risk response. We leave it up to event organizers to make the decision," he added.
Ryan disputed suggestions by U.S. National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow on Thursday that the United States was "quite disappointed" with China's response to the outbreak and that the Beijing government was operating with a lack of transparency.
"I don't know Mr. Kudlow," Ryan said. "We've had a team on the ground since the beginning. From our perspective, we have a government in China that's cooperating. They've shared genetic sequences of the virus and patient data with the international community."
"Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but there is a history of deep collaboration between institutions in the U.S. and China," Ryan added, citing the similarity in the names of the two countries' national public health agencies, both of which are called the CDC, referring to Centers for Disease Control. "Scientists collaborate regardless. They get on with it. We should maybe try all of us to not politicize this situation."