US beefs up screening of travelers for new virus from China

A sales clerk at a pharmacy rings up a purchase of face masks as fears of the coronavirus grow, Friday, Jan 24, 2020 in Chicago. A Chicago woman has become the second U.S. patient diagnosed with the dangerous new virus from China, health officials announced Friday.

A deadly outbreak in China that had spread to 17 countries as of Tuesday has health care providers on alert for the coronavirus. Although they’re ready should it reach Jackson, they say that influenza remains a bigger threat to Wyomingites.

As of Tuesday morning, the 2019 novel coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei Province had killed 106 people, all in China, and infected 4,515 people, according to China’s National Health Commission. That count was a 60% increase overnight from Monday’s 2,835 total confirmed cases.

“These are almost certainly underreported,” Teton County Health Officer Travis Riddell said. “In Hubei there is a scarcity of testing kits, and as with any respiratory illness there are some folks who are not coming to the attention of authorities.”

Riddell spoke to the Teton County Board of Health at its bimonthly meeting Tuesday, updating it on the novel coronavirus’s spread and origin. He said that as in similar outbreaks, the zoonotic disease is thought to have started in bats, but this particular strain moved to humans in a Chinese open-air fish and live animal market.

Coronaviruses aren’t new. The World Health Organization says the family of viruses includes the common cold. Symptoms can resemble the cold or flu, or they can be more severe and include pneumonia, kidney failure and death.

Novel coronaviruses are ones humans have not previously identified. Several viruses in the family remain in animals and have not transferred to humans, but when they do they can spread quickly, becoming pandemics, because treatments and protocols for containment do not exist.

“It’s hard to glean much about the case fatality rate or how deadly this is,” Riddell said, “because it’s so early in the process.”

This is the third global coronavirus outbreak in the past 20 years. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, originated in China, killing 774 people worldwide from November 2002 to July 2003. Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, passed from camels to people and has killed 858 people worldwide since 2012, according to World Health Organization data.

Five cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed in the United States, with no deaths. Since the start of the outbreak, 110 people in the United States had been or were being monitored, with 32 testing negative and 73 cases pending as of Tuesday. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases had been found in Washington state, California, Arizona and Illinois.

Riddell told the Board of Health that the coronavirus is not an immediate risk in Teton County. The Wyoming Department of Health says no cases have been confirmed in the state, but with Jackson being an epicenter of tourism, including from Asia, risk of transmission exists.

Jacksonites’ propensity to travel abroad, including to China, also proves to be a risk factor in the potential for the disease to reach the Tetons. Riddell said the danger, however, is easily avoidable.

“Just don’t travel to China,” he said.

For individual travelers, that advice might work, but U.S. health officials are taking precautions. Direct flights from Wuhan have been canceled, and as of Tuesday more than 20 airports were screening for the disease with machines that test passengers for fevers. The measures are meant to minimize human-to-human transmission of the disease, which has been found in other countries, and exposure of new patients.

“Currently in the U.S., this virus is not spreading in the community,” the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier said in a Monday press briefing. “For that reason, we continue to believe that the immediate health risk from the new virus to the general American public is low.”

Supplies for health workers

Messonnier directs the agency’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, and she said health officials had developed a test for the disease and were figuring out how to disseminate it to public health departments, if needed. Teton County Health Department Director Jodie Pond said she and her staff were prepared should the virus reach Wyoming.

Transmission to health care workers in China has reportedly occurred in hospitals that are overcrowded or lack enough basic supplies, according to news reports. Pond said her department has a basement full of gloves, face masks and other protective equipment that it stocks specifically as part of its readiness training for disease outbreaks.

“We are prepared when and if the time comes,” she told the Board of Health.

St. John’s Health Chief Communications Officer Karen Connelly said the hospital is also prepared should a patient walk in with the virus. Since patients will likely go to the doctor or the emergency room if they develop symptoms, the hospital’s doctors would likely be the first line of defense.

“For patients presenting with fever, cough or respiratory illness, we are asking questions regarding the patient’s travel history to the countries advised by the CDC,” Connelly said.

For all the worry regarding the emergent coronavirus, influenza remains a more pertinent threat to people in Wyoming. With the flu season in high gear, the CDC says Wyoming is experiencing high levels of the virus.

Focused on preventing flu

The agency estimates 15 million Americans have contracted the flu, and 8,200 have died. Pond and Connelly both said that while their organizations were aware of the risks from coronavirus, flu prevention and treatment were still more relevant.

“Even as we monitor the coronavirus situation very closely,” Connelly said, “we continue to be particularly focused on preventing the spread of flu in our community.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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