SEATTLE — Public health officials here are monitoring at least 16 people who were in close contact with a man from a nearby suburb, the nation’s first person infected with a new global respiratory virus after a trip to China.
The new, deadly coronavirus, which originated in the central city of Wuhan, has so far infected more than 540 and killed at least 17, according to Chinese authorities. Wuhan officials have halted air and train travel from the city and closed public transportation. The virus has spread to Beijing, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
There’s only one known case in the United States, the unidentified Snohomish County man in his 30s who returned from Wuhan last week and became ill.
County and federal health officials began the painstaking work of tracking the man’s travel and contacting individuals who shared flights, public transportation or otherwise came in close contact with him. Some health care workers who treated the man at a local clinic were asked to stay home and monitor for symptoms.
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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee praised the efforts of state and local health departments in tracking the virus’ path.
“This is certainly not a moment for panic or high anxiety,” Inslee said. “It is a moment for vigilance.”
The man traveled to Wuhan in November to visit family and had no symptoms when he returned Jan. 15 on a connecting flight to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He took some form of transportation from the airport to his home in the suburban county north of Seattle. When he became ill with a cough on Monday, he visited an unidentified clinic. He was later transported to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.
The man is in satisfactory condition and recovering at the hospital in an isolated unit. He is walking around in his room and is cooperating with health officials.
“He appears to be doing well,” said Jay Cook, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “We hope he will continue on his excellent clinical course and will be able to return home in the near future.”
Health officials said the virus is low risk and likely spreads through tiny droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. Officials urged people take the usual cold and flu season precaution: frequent hand washing, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing and staying home when you don’t feel well.
“In New York state, we have 44,000 cases of flu this season … and three pediatric deaths,” said Howard Zucker, New York state’s commissioner of health. “We have this one case in Washington state. It’s not that I’m saying we shouldn’t be concerned. I think we need to keep things in context.”
Washington state and Snohomish County health officials have not publicly identified places the infected man visited after returning from China. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not released details on the man’s flight, including any connecting city. Rather, the CDC is contacting the airlines, state and local health departments to individually notify people on the flights.
‘We’re not worrywarts or germaphobes’
Sea-Tac spokesman Perry Cooper said despite the passing sick passenger, the airport was determined by CDC to be low risk. Airport staff was neither discouraged or encouraged to wear masks or gloves, or take other protective measures beyond those normally employed during flu season, he said.
The emergence of a mysterious virus, however, has been a hot conversation topic among airport transportation workers trying to figure out if the man was anyone’s fare.
Jamal Jamaac, a cab driver who’s worked in Seattle for 12 years, couldn’t believe more people weren’t wearing surgical masks. The 53-year-old said he visits the airport about 50 times a week with pickups and drop offs. He started wearing surgical gloves Wednesday afternoon to ward off the spread of germs.
“Every driver is worried right now,” Jamaac said. “I don’t want to shake anyone’s hand. If it hits one passenger, it’s going to hit us all very hard.”
Drivers are often in close quarters not just with sick passengers but with each other, he noted, crammed into bathrooms and break rooms. Jamaac said he’s gotten the flu multiple times from sick passengers, and early Wednesday, picked up a woman from Japan who expressed shock that more people around the airport weren’t wearing masks.
“Nobody is wearing a mask, she’s right,” Jamaac said. “And everybody should be!”
Loralee and Andy Greco hustled down an escalator on their way to baggage claim wearing brightly colored medical masks — they ordered them on Amazon — that have become part of their new travel routine. The Grecos, who were returning home from some friends’ wedding in the Dominican Republic, started wearing masks after getting sick earlier this year while in New York visiting family that included toddler nieces.
“We’re not worrywarts or germaphobes,” said Andy Greco, 32. “This is just preventative because we noticed we’d usually get sick after traveling.”
The bright colors and designs — Loralee was wearing a floral pattern mask and Andy’s was a blue geometric pattern, both with replaceable filters — were a purposeful choice.
“The medical ones just make me a little uneasy,” he said.
Loralee, 30, joked that since they started wearing them “all I hear are people sneezing or coughing.”
As for the infected passenger who traveled through SeaTac, the couple wasn’t overly concerned — once they knew about him, anyway.
“Yeah, I saw it on the news the other day — ” Andy started, before Loralee cut him off.
“What?! Why didn’t you tell me?”
They laughed, stressing again that they’re not germaphobes, they just like to be informed.
“It’s just one case, and they got him to a doctor,” Andy said. “Let’s wait for the numbers to come in before we panic.”
‘You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen’
Public health officials are optimistic their response has improved since a 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS, another coronavirus-caused respiratory illness that sickened 8,098 and killed 774.
The family of viruses cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe infections such as pneumonia and Middle East respiratory syndrome. Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
“We are much further ahead in the response to this novel coronavirus than we were to SARS,” said Nate Smith, president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and Secretary of Health for Arkansas Department of Health.
He said within four weeks of identifying the new virus in Wuhan, key genetic information was shared with countries so they could develop their own tests. The CDC is the only U.S. agency capable of testing for the new coronavirus, but the agency expects to share the test with other public health labs.
“With anything new, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” Smith said. “So it makes a lot more sense to be aggressive in your response and find out that it was overkill than to under respond and then find out there was something you didn’t anticipate.”