A new virus has health experts puzzled over precisely how it got started and how easily it’s spread. As of Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, it has reportedly infected more than 2,700 people and killed 80 in China since being discovered last month in the Chinese city of Wuhan. And it recently showed up in Snohomish County, the first of three cases in the United States.
So, the public’s concern about it is understandable. But it’s not what keeps public-health experts up at night.
They worry more about antibiotic-resistant bugs, say, or nonseasonal flu pandemics like the one that swept the globe in 1918. “That could happen anytime,” said Dr. Janet Baseman, an epidemiologist and the associate dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.
Even the usual influenza that circulates each year has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 people in the United States annually since 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But because it’s new and somewhat mysterious — and now that it’s crossed the Pacific Ocean — the Wuhan coronavirus has prompted growing concerns.
When The Seattle Times asked readers this week what questions they had about it, one person in Marysville wondered whether it’s even safe to go out and celebrate the Lunar New Year this weekend around Washington state.
The short answer is yes. Party on.
“Don’t panic unless you’re paid to panic,” Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist at UC Riverside who has studied many deadly outbreaks, told the Los Angeles Times. “Public-health workers should be on the lookout. The government should be ready to provide resources. Transmitting timely facts to the public is key. But for everyone else: Breathe.”
(In Sammamish, the Lunar New Year Festival scheduled for Saturday was canceled after parents and performers pulled out).
The Snohomish County man who has the United States’ first known case of the virus returned to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 15 after traveling solo in Wuhan since November. A few days later, he started showing symptoms of pneumonia and contacted his doctor. He’s been monitored in an isolation unit at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett since then, and the hospital says he’s in satisfactory condition.
The state Department of Health isn’t disclosing where the man went between landing at Sea-Tac and being hospitalized. Instead, state and local public-health officials have individually contacted 50 people believed to have been in close contact with the man during that time, reaching out daily to ask if they are experiencing any symptoms such as a fever or respiratory issues.
Coronaviruses usually aren’t contagious until a person starts showing symptoms, Dr. Satish Pillai, a medical officer with the CDC, said at a news conference this week.
It isn’t clear how the man, who is in his 30s and lives alone, contracted the coronavirus while in China. He told public-health officials he didn’t visit an animal market in Wuhan where the virus is suspected to have mutated and spread from animals to humans — a common trait of coronaviruses, and one that epidemiologists are paying attention to.
“As our environments and the environments of animals overlap more and more, it is a huge concern, because it is really hard to predict where those spillovers from animals to humans will happen,” Baseman said.
In the past week, the CDC started funneling travelers from Wuhan to the U.S. through five airports equipped to screen them: New York City’s Kennedy airport, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Now, no one can leave Wuhan, as Chinese officials enforce unprecedented travel restrictions in and around the city to quarantine about 50 million people.
In the U.S., public-health officials are urging people to wash their hands and cover their coughs and sneezes — the usual precautions taken during flu season, which is in full swing right now and hitting Washington state hard.
Like the flu, the Wuhan coronavirus seems to have a greater impact on older adults and people with underlying health conditions. Most of those who’ve died were older than 60.
But the U.S. health-care system has a lot more experience combating the flu, said Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health-care officer and the chief science officer. “We just don’t know much about this particular virus to date,” she said.
One of the reasons local public-health officials aren’t hitting the panic button yet is that the Snohomish County patient was so diligent about seeing a doctor as soon as he felt symptoms, partly because he’d been following the news of the outbreak.
The risk here is also lower because the virus originated on another continent, Baseman said.
“When you have one imported case, the outbreak potential is a lot different than a place where it starts, where there could be hundreds of people getting sick,” she said.
The World Health Organization on Thursday opted not to declare the outbreak a global health emergency yet, with a divided committee ultimately declaring it was “too early” to make such a declaration.
In the U.S. as of Friday, 63 patients in 22 states were under investigation for the Wuhan coronavirus, and 11 of those had tested negative, according to the CDC.
As of Sunday afternoon, the United States’ only other confirmed cases are a woman in Chicago in her 60s and a traveler from Wuhan who fell ill in California.
Washingtonians with questions can call the Snohomish County Health District between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily at 425-388-5088, or call the state health department at 800-525-0127 and press the pound key.
“In my opinion, the state is really well prepared,” said Dr. Linda Venczel, an epidemiologist and director of global health security at Seattle-based health nonprofit PATH. “I feel confident for this situation and anything new that might occur.”
Information from The Los Angeles Times is included in this report.