The New Flu Is a Bad, Bad Cold
Early Days to Know Severity of Novel Coronavirus, Say Health Officials
Chinese New Year festivities start on Saturday for everyone but those dealing with the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the capitol city of China’s Hubei Province. Customarily, family members journey to be together for the holiday, but travel in and out of Hubei Province was banned on Thursday by Chinese officials. Newly diagnosed patients died in two distant provinces in recent days. In the United States, a second verified case was confirmed during a Friday-morning press conference by the Centers for Disease Control’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who heads its respiratory disease wing. The new Chicago case follows one previously identified in Washington State. Messonnier said 22 states had reported 63 possible U.S. cases.
Santa Barbara County’s public health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, has been on the phone with either the CDC or California Public Health clinicians on a daily basis since the outbreak was recognized. No cases are confirmed for California or Santa Barbara. He emphasized that of the 63 cases, 11 patients had a virus other than the one afflicting Wuhan; only two were diagnosed positive. But anyone who’s been to Wuhan — which has a population of 11 million — since the last weeks of December and develops flu or cold symptoms should call their health-care provider right away, Ansorg said. This is not an ailment to tough out. If it turns out to be the suspect virus, the people the patient has been in contact with also need to be monitored.
In a press call with reporters on Friday morning, health officials said the Chicago case involves a woman in her sixties who had traveled to Wuhan in late December and returned without symptoms on January 13. When she later developed fever and respiratory symptoms, she contacted her doctor, who, upon learning her travel history, immediately put a mask on her and sent her to a Chicago-area hospital. The woman had no close extended contact with anyone beyond her immediate household, Dr. Allison Arwady of Chicago Public Health told reporters, such as at large gatherings or on public transportation. The woman remained in the hospital for infection control, Arwady said, in an isolated room with her caregivers wearing protective gear.
The Washington patient, a man in his thirties from Snohomish County, had also returned from Wuhan without symptoms through Sea-Tac airport on January 15. The CDC had been coordinating with state officials since January 8 to watch for infections in the U.S. and had alerted the 14 airports with flights from Wuhan. It began monitoring passengers at the three airports with the largest number of flights — LAX, SFO, and JFK — last weekend. Chicago and Atlanta’s international airports were added to that list on Thursday.
The Washington man had been reading about the Wuhan disease outbreak, and he recognized his symptoms of fever and respiratory infection as harbingers of the disease. Notably, he had not been to the food markets that sold domestic and exotic animals, the CDC stated. Two papers in Chinese medical journals initially linked the virus to live snakes, bats, or rats for sale — others have speculated aquatic sea creatures are involved. The market was closed on January 1. Health officials presume transmission since then has been person-to-person, and the specific animal route remains as yet unidentified.
By the time the man in Washington reported his symptoms to his doctor and volunteered his travel history, the CDC had finalized a specific test for the nCoV, as the novel coronavirus is being abbreviated. The test confirms the virus within four to six hours of receiving a respiratory or blood sample. Called the “real time Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction,” the test will soon go to state laboratories to shorten the travel time for samples, Messonnier said.
She added that CDC was withholding the list of 22 states with potential nCoV patients until next week after their test results are confirmed. The health officials emphasized that the risk appeared to be low right now and that public health agencies were informing all doctors and clinicians of how to identify potential cases quickly. Recent travel to Wuhan was key, as was contact with someone who’d been there in past weeks. Unlike the flu, which shows symptoms in a day or three, nCoV patients can take up to two weeks to have the fever, cough, sneezing, or wheezing common to a cold. And, like a cold, no vaccine exists at the moment.
Cottage Health is monitoring global developments as part of its infection prevention and control, said Cottage spokesperson Maria Zate. Its staff is alert to precautions for communicable diseases, and all patients who visit the emergency room are asked about recent travel routinely, she said, as well as symptoms consistent with the current CDC and public health alerts.
Santa Barbara’s Dr. Henning Ansorg noted that although the nCoV has a roughly 2 percent mortality rate — of 846 patients worldwide, 25 have died — it’s less than 2003’s dreaded SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) mortality rate of 10 percent. As in all colds and flus, good ways to avoid catching it is to wash your hands frequently, certainly before eating, Ansorg advised. And if you suspect nCoV and contact your doctor, call to say you’re coming so they can prepare to avoid contagion. For recent travelers, he said, if you don’t have symptoms, you’re not contagious yet. Health officials are counting on travelers to be self-aware of the possibility of disease.
The novel coronavirus is in the family of viruses that causes the common cold, but it’s a new mutation, and doctors are therefore wary of how bad it could be. So far, most people who died, Ansorg pointed out, tended to have other factors that made them susceptible, such as cancer, heart or lung issues, and advanced age, which is true of the average annual flu. The Washington patient has recovered beautifully, he said, and the Chicago patient is in recovery.
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