Reports from China paint an increasingly alarming picture of a coronavirus that has now factored in over 100 deaths and forced millions of people into quarantine worldwide, and Fairfax County has not been immune from fears of the outbreak’s spread.
The Virginia Department of Health announced on Jan. 26 that it was investigating three Virginia residents for possible infection; two individuals in central Virginia and one in Northern Virginia. George Mason University confirmed on Jan. 27 that the Northern Virginia individual is one of its students who had recently returned to the U.S. from China, noting that the student does not live on campus and has been self-isolating while laboratory test results are being processed.
“At this time, the current risk to the public and the Mason community remains low, and the university has been advised that additional precautions are not necessary,” GMU student health services and GMU’s safety, emergency and enterprise risk management team said. “…The local health department is conducting an investigation and will contact anyone whom they suspect to be at risk of exposure and illness.”
The two central Virginia individuals tested negative for the Novel Coronavirus infection, meaning that there have not been any confirmed cases of the virus so far in the state, the Virginia Department of Health said in an update on Jan. 27.
The department anticipated that it would receive test results for the Mason student later in the week.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the new coronavirus is a serious public health threat based on how it has spread in China, where it has fueled a respiratory illness outbreak that originated in Wuhan City.
However, the situation in the U.S. is less clear. There have been six confirmed cases as of Jan. 31, and the CDC has confirmed the first human-to-human spread in U.S. The CDC also said that the newest patient, who lives in Chicago, is the sixth person in the U.S. to be diagnosed with the virus, and the first in the U.S. to contract the disease from human to human contact.
Since Jan. 21, 165 people across 36 states in the U.S. have come under investigation for possible infection by the Novel Coronavirus, which has been named 2019-nCoV. 68 people tested negative for the virus with 92 cases still pending.
The six patients who have tested positive are located in Washington State, Illinois (2), California(2), and Arizona.
Risk of infection depends on exposure with healthcare workers and other people who may have had close contact with new coronavirus patients facing an increased risk.
“For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV is considered low,” the CDC says.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that typically infect animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats, but sometimes change to infect humans as well.
Four of the known types of human coronaviruses are common and can cause mild to moderate respiratory infections akin to the common cold, while the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, widely known as SARS, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, trigger more severe infections.
SARS emerged in Vietnam, Hong Kong, and China in February 2003. According to the World Health Organization, it infected 8,098 people, 774 of whom died, in more than two dozen countries around the world before the outbreak was contained, though no cases have been reported since 2004.
Though subsequent investigations traced the first cases of the virus back to Jordan in April 2012, MERS was first reported in Saudi Arabia in September 2012 before spreading to several other countries, including the U.S. Three or four out of every 10 patients with MERS have died, with all of the 2,494 identified cases so far linked to the Arabian Peninsula, according to the CDC and World Health Organization.
The new coronavirus first detected in Wuhan on Dec. 31 is now the seventh known type that has infected humans.
The CDC says 2019-nCoV originated in bats, like SARS and MERS, and early on, many patients were linked to a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan, though a growing number of patients have not visited animal markets, signaling that it is spreading through human contact.
As of Jan. 29, 132 people have died from the new coronavirus, up from 106 deaths the previous day, according to the WHO, which has assigned a high global risk assessment to the outbreak.
There have been 6,065 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, 5,997 of them in China with 68 patients confirmed in 15 other countries. No country outside of China has recorded any deaths.
The majority of confirmed cases have occurred in the Hubei province, where Wuhan has been placed under quarantine with a ban on travel into and out of the capital city since Jan. 22.
China’s National Health Commission expanded the lockdown on Jan. 25 beyond Wuhan to 18 cities in Hubei province, an area with 56 million people, and Hong Kong announced on Jan. 28 that it would place restrictions on travel from the mainland starting on Jan. 30.
The CDC has issued a Level 3 travel warning, recommending that people avoid all nonessential travel to China, and announced on Jan. 28 that the U.S. is expanding screenings of travelers arriving from Wuhan to 20 airports and land crossings that have permanent quarantine stations.
“The goal of the ongoing U.S. public health response is to contain this outbreak and prevent sustained spread in this country,” the CDC said in a statement. “…CDC is aggressively responding to this serious public health situation to help protect the health of Americans.”
The Fairfax County Health Department has given guidance to clinicians regarding what to do if a patient has respiratory illness and recently traveled to Wuhan or came in contact with someone who has the new coronavirus, according to communications director John Silcox.
Fairfax County Public Schools recently canceled a visit to Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church by exchange students from Yichang, a city in Hubei province about 175 miles west of Wuhan.
Accompanied by five adult chaperones, the 21 students, all of them 12 years old, landed at JFK Airport in New York on Jan. 22 and were set to stay with local families while attending classes at Longfellow until Jan. 29.
While the risk of the students carrying and transmitting the virus was deemed low, Longfellow principal Carole Kihm informed parents in a letter on Jan. 22 that the students’ trip was being rearranged “out of an abundance of caution” so that they would instead visit cultural sites and do educational activities in the Washington, D.C., area, according to The Washington Post.
According to the CDC, symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Most evidence suggests that older adults and people with underlying health conditions may face an increased risk for severe disease, though a 36-year-old Wuhan resident became the virus’s youngest fatality when he died on Jan. 23.
The Virginia Department of Health says that, while there are variations depending on the type, symptoms of a coronavirus usually appear two to 14 days after exposure. Officials recommend that people take the same precautions used to prevent any respiratory illness:
• wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing and sneezing, before and after caring for a sick person, and before preparing foods and eating
• cover the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and disposing of the tissue in the trash
• avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
• avoid close contact with people who are sick
• clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects like toys and doorknobs, especially if someone in the house has been sick
• stay home when sick except to get medical care
• wash hands after animal contact and after visiting farms, markets, barns, petting zoos, and agricultural fairs
• avoid contact with sick animals
George Mason University is advising any students who have recently traveled to Hubei province to report immediately to the nearest hospital emergency room if they are experiencing a fever greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, coughing, or difficulty breathing.
Students with mild symptoms and a lower temperature have been told to seek medical care from their primary care physician or GMU’s student health services.
“When a new disease is circulating, it’s natural for people to be concerned and to ask what they can do to protect themselves and their families,” Silcox said. “The best guidance at this point is to take the same precautions that are recommended for avoiding colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses this time of year.”
On Jan. 27, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA) joined Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and 28 of their Democratic Senate colleagues in requesting updates on the Administration’s response to the outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and information on the steps being taken to keep families safe.
“We write to express concern about the rapidly evolving 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), to urge your continued robust and scientifically driven response to the situation, and to assess whether any additional resources or action by Congress are needed at this time. A quick and effective response to the 2019-nCoV requires public health officials around the world work together to share reliable information about the disease and insight into steps taken to prevent, diagnose, and treat it appropriately,” wrote the Senators.