New coronavirus ‘not spreading’ in the US, CDC says

While the death toll for the new coronavirus has crossed 100 people people in China and put the world on edge, it is not spreading in the U.S., health officials said in news conference Monday.

“We understand that many people in the Unites States are worried about this virus,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

“At this time, in the U.S., the virus is not spreading in the community,” she added. “For that reason we continue to believe that the immediate health risk from the new virus to the general public is low at this time.”

In the U.S., 110 individuals from 26 states are being investigated to determine whether they have coronavirus. Of those individuals, 32 have tested negative, five have tested positive, and the remaining test results are pending.

No new coronavirus cases have been diagnosed overnight, according to the CDC, and all five cases were in people who had traveled to China. Two of those five cases are in Southern California and Chicago, Washington state and Arizona have each reported one coronavirus case.

The CDC is currently advising Americans to avoid non-essential travel to China’s Hubei province and Wuhan, which is the epicenter of the outbreak. Travelers to China, particularly older adults and those with underlying health problems, should discuss their travel plans with their health care providers. Anyone traveling in China should avoid contact with sick people, and should avoid animals, animal markets and animal products, such as uncooked meat. They should also wash their hands thoroughly and often.

The State Department issued a new travel advisory Monday, urging U.S. travelers to “reconsider travel” to China because of coronavirus.

Five U.S. airports, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, continue to screen passengers from Wuhan for pneumonia-like symptoms, such as fever and respiratory problems. So far, airports have screened about 2,400 passengers, with screenings declining following strict travel bans and a quarantine in Wuhan.

The purpose of those airport screenings is two-fold, according to Messonnier. Health officials want to quickly detect and respond to respiratory illness in travelers coming from Wuhan. They also want to educate travelers who’ve been to Wuhan, so that if they develop symptoms later, they know to call their health care provider to get checked out.

The CDC is in the process of developing a real-time diagnostic test to identify the virus and is hoping to quickly roll that test out to states. For now, all samples are being sent to the CDC in Atlanta, a process which takes about a day, from the time clinicians and the CDC agree to test a patient for coronavirus until results come back from Atlanta. Other countries are doing similar centralized testing, Messonnier explained. While speed is important, accurate testing is the agency’s priority.

While a report in the Lancet, published Jan. 24, suggested that people who contract coronavirus might be able spread the disease before they develop symptoms, Messonnier maintained that the CDC has “no clear evidence” of patients’ being infectious before symptom onset. For now, the virus’ incubation period is believed to be between two and 14 days.

In China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, there have been more than 4,535 cases and 106 deaths. In addition to the cases in the United States, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Macao, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, France, Germany, Vietnam, Nepal and Sri Lanka have all confirmed travel-related cases in their respective countries.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. urged the Department of Health and Human Services to declare a formal public health emergency in the United States. Such a designation would free up money for the CDC to preemptively prepare for the virus to potentially spread in the U.S.

“If we have learned anything from the risks the new viruses pose to public health, it is a ‘stitch in time saves nine,’ and the more we can do to be proactive, the better off the public will be,” Schumer said during a news conference Jan. 26.

A recent budget deal negotiated by Schumer and Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of House Appropriations Committee, increased the federal Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund from $50 million to $85 million, but in order to use that money, HHS has to declare a public health emergency.

“The critical thing about these specific dollars is that the CDC has full discretion,” Schumer said. “The agency can use them for whatever activities it deems appropriate, so long as they inform Congress. This kind of flexible funding needs to be unlocked now should this outbreak worsen.”

The World Health Organization did not declare a public health emergency of international concern last week, after deliberating for two days over the decision.