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Infectious Diseases

Updated 13 March 2020

First US patient with China coronavirus is diagnosed in Washington State

An American man who had visited the city of Wuhan in China developed pneumonia, and has been confirmed to have the coronavirus by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first US case of a new coronavirus illness that originated in central China has been identified in a patient in Washington State, federal health officials announced.

In a news briefing, officials said that the male patient was hospitalised with pneumonia last week and had recently travelled to Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in China where the outbreak is thought to have begun.

Low risk to public

The man is being quarantined at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, "out of an abundance of precaution and for short-term monitoring, not because there is severe illness," stressed Dr Chris Spitters, interim health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

"We believe the risk to the public is low," added Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman.

The quarantined patient is in his 30s and resides in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, state epidemiologist Dr Scott Lindquist explained at the briefing. The patient is currently in a good condition and clinically not ill, officials said.

The man flew home into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on January 15 via an indirect flight, officials said. Airport screening for the new virus did not start until January 17.

According to officials, the man had been keeping up with the news, and when he developed symptoms on January 19, he reached out to his doctor. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that he had the coronavirus by the next day.

The news comes a day after the leader of a Chinese government team of experts announced on Monday that human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus had been confirmed in that country.

Routine illness checks

Also on Tuesday, Chinese health officials confirmed that more than 300 cases of infection have now been identified, including six deaths, CNN reported.

The outbreak is thought to have originated in a Wuhan poultry and seafood market. Besides Wuhan, cases have now been identified in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, as well as Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.

On Friday, US officials announced the start of routine illness checks for people flying into the United States from Central China via Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco. And in the Tuesday news briefing it was announced that two more airports – Atlanta and Chicago – will be added to that list.

Furthermore, Homeland Security says it will reroute all indirect flights from Wuhan, to make sure that all travelers come through one of those five airports so they can be screened.

CDC staff has screened more than 1 200 people at the airports so far, and none have been diagnosed with symptoms or taken to a hospital, Dr Nancy Messonnier said at the news briefing. She directs the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

In a news release, the CDC said it had already put other efforts into place in advance of the possible introduction of the coronavirus into the United States. These efforts included:

  • Alerting doctors as of 8 January "to be on the lookout for patients with respiratory symptoms and a history of travel to Wuhan, China".
  • Helping to develop a protocol for doctors on how to diagnose the new infection, and issuing guidance on home care of patients.
  • Pushing to develop a diagnostic test key to spotting and treating infection early.
  • Also, "CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center" to help respond to the threat from the new virus.

According to the CDC, coronaviruses comprise a large family of viruses. Some of these pathogens only circulate among animals such as camels, cats and bats, the agency said, but some can be transmitted from an animal and infect people and cause respiratory symptoms.

In rare cases – such as occurred in the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreaks over the past decade – coronaviruses can spread person-to-person.

Coronavirus develops differently

One US emergency medicine physician said it's still far too early to be alarmed by the outbreak.

"It's important to put this in perspective – it's more likely that you would encounter the flu compared to the coronavirus at this time," said Dr Robert Glatter, of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

He noted that coronavirus infection develops differently compared to the flu, so people should be on the lookout.

"Because this coronavirus is occurring during the flu season, many people may be more concerned, and rightfully so," Glatter said. "The onset of the flu is quite different to a typical coronavirus infection. The flu is more severe in onset, with high fever, dry cough, back pain, muscle aches and fatigue, compared with a coronavirus, which generally develops more gradually with fever, malaise, and less severe symptoms. It resembles more of a cold-like virus initially, but later can become more severe over a few days," he explained.

"The bottom line is that we need to stay calm, and not panic, as we learn more about this novel coronavirus," Glatter said. "At the same time, however, we still need to be vigilant of this new and potentially emerging threat."

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