Local officials closed the seafood and meat market in Wuhan on Jan. 1. By then, a number of victims had come down with worrying symptoms from a new strain of coronavirus, which has been known to be transmitted from animals to humans. By Jan. 9 the first patient, a 61-year-old man had died. 

Since then, hundreds of cases have been reported in Wuhan and in other Asian countries, including Thailand and South Korea — along with more than a dozen deaths. In a move reminiscent of historical plagues, Chinese officials have shut down public transport in and out of Wuhan in an attempt to contain the outbreak from spreading. It is the lunar New Year, when millions celebrate by visiting families, and the fear is that many travelers will carry the coronavirus with them across China and the world beyond.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has already reached the United States — the first patient is a man in his 30s who traveled from Wuhan to Seattle. Though he landed without any symptoms, he is believed to have carried the new strain with him.

As the virus spreads, so do concerns — especially in American cities with large populations of Asians who may be traveling for the New Year festivities. In Seattle, drugstores are reportedly running out of face masks.

Coronaviruses typically cause respiratory distress in mammals, most notably bats and camels, but hundreds of other species as well. The viruses, named for the ‘corona’ or crown-like appearance under a microscope, are also well-known in human populations. Health officials say most Americans are exposed to a coronavirus at least once in their lives. Usually the virus results in mild symptoms similar to a cold — sniffy, sneezy, sore throat.

But because there is no cure for the new strain — and a vaccine could be years in the making — health officials are taking the new outbreak very seriously. A coronavirus can trigger pneumonia and other deadly respiratory conditions, especially in the elderly, small children and people with compromised immune systems.

Chinese authorities are handing out face masks to people in infected areas and have launched a massive educational campaign to alert people to wash their hands frequently and report to medical authorities if they feel symptoms.

Here in the US, the Centers for Disease Control has dispatched more than 100 workers to screen passengers at international airports in five major cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago. It’s expected that 5,000 people will be traveling from Wuhan to the United States in the next few weeks.

The CDC has also developed a quick test to diagnose the new virus, which it is sharing with other health agencies throughout the world. But that won’t eliminate the threat. "Screening is a very imperfect tool,” says one expert, “but it's the only tool we have to try and prevent the importation of a disease." 

What can you do? Health officials say that, unless you are traveling to China or hosting someone from there, you have a very, very low risk of infection. Face masks aren’t necessary, and many doctors think they are ineffective anyway. But we should all wash our hands thoroughly (at least 20 seconds) or use sanitizer — not so much to protect against the new strain of coronavirus but mostly the other viruses that run rampant in the colder months, when we are crowded indoors with our fellow human beings.

Published on Jan 22, 2020