Questions and Answers about a Novel Coronavirus in Washington

Note: This has been updated on January 31, 2020 to reflect the most current information. This situation is evolving and we will continue to update information on our website as information becomes available at www.kingcounty.gov/ncov.

UPDATE on January 31, 2020: On the afternoon of January 31, 2020 , the U.S. federal government declared the situation with novel coronavirus to be a Public Health Emergency, including updated travel and quarantine measures. We are working to get more details on this new federal action and will update our website as more information is available.

The Washington Department of Health announced the first case in the U.S. of a new novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Snohomish County on January 21, 2020 and a small number of additional cases have been identified in other states. The virus emerged in Wuhan, China in December and there are a growing number of cases confirmed in an increasing number of countries.

Health officials regard this situation as a very serious public health threat and staff at Public Health – Seattle & King County, the Washington State Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and health departments throughout the state and nation are working 24/7 to respond. The fact that the virus has caused severe illness and sustained person-to-person spread in China is concerning, but it’s unclear how the situation in the United States will unfold at this time.

The immediate risk to the general public in King County of infection from this novel coronavirus remains low at this time. However, the situation is evolving and in coordination with the CDC, we are monitoring the risk level closely. We asked Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, about the novel coronavirus and what we might expect. 

How severe is the illness from novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)?

Jeff Duchin: Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. They usually cause mild respiratory illnesses such as the common cold. There have been coronaviruses that have caused more severe illness, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

As with any newly emerging infectious disease, knowledge evolves with time.  Early on, it is difficult to know the source of the disease, how effectively it spreads from person to person, and the spectrum of illness – how severe the infection is.  These questions are answered over time as investigations provide accurate information. According to reports, most of the of people who have been infected have not had serious illness, although there have been some deaths, particularly in older adults with underlying health conditions.

Is there any information about how the novel coronavirus spreads?

Initially some patients were linked to a live seafood and meat market in Wuhan, but cases continued to emerge after the market was closed on January 1. Based on what we know today, the 2019-nCoV can be transmitted from person to person and it appears to do so more readily than first reported by Chinese authorities, though it’s unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people. There has been very limited person to person transmission in the U.S., and no person to person transmission in King County at this time.

How concerned should people in King County be about this novel coronavirus?

This is a serious public health threat. Overall, public health professionals and healthcare providers should be concerned and stay informed in order to rapidly identify and appropriately manage persons who may be infected with the novel coronavirus.

However, at this time the risk to the general public is low. There is currently only one case in Washington and the case did not have close contact with the general public while infectious. The few close contacts of this case have been identified and are being monitored closely by public health. 

Did the person from Snohomish who has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus expose others while traveling through SeaTac airport?

The person did not have symptoms while at SeaTac International Airport which would make transmission less likely. CDC is currently evaluating whether there were any exposures of concern. He sought medical attention soon after experiencing symptoms and followed procedures to prevent exposure to others. He was quickly isolated in accordance with CDC guidance, so the risk of exposure from this case is low.

What is being done to identify and prevent the spread of novel coronavirus?

On January 17, CDC started screening for novel coronavirus at airports receiving travelers from Wuhan, China and then routed all travelers from Wuhan to those airports with enhanced screening. Since China restricted travel out of Wuhan, the number of passengers who meet this criteria are dwindling. CDC and Customs and Border Control are also monitoring for illness on flights from China at 20 ports of entry in the U.S.

Although this screening may identify ill persons, the main value is in providing information to travelers returning from areas where the outbreak is occurring on what to do if they develop symptoms. Because it is not possible to identify all people who may be incubating an infection through screening, clinicians and healthcare systems must remain alert and ask persons with respiratory symptoms about their travel history.

In addition, China has since imposed travel restrictions to and from Wuhan and the surrounding region. International travelers should also be aware of this outbreak and be sure to review guidance for international travelers from the CDC at: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices

We’re also working with the healthcare system to help them detect any infections as quickly as possible.  In January, Public Health issued two health advisories to King County healthcare providers and hospitals providing guidance on identifying and evaluating persons at risk for this new infection. We are monitoring close contacts of the case in Snohomish County to rapidly detect any potential signs of infection and get them evaluated quickly if needed, minimizing the risk of spread. Our partners at the Northwest Healthcare Response Network are also standing ready to provide coordination with healthcare partners.

The continual emergence and rapid international spread of new infectious agents is an example of why we need a strong public health system that is coordinated with the clinical healthcare delivery system.  There is much we don’t know about this new coronavirus, and ongoing close collaboration between public health and clinical health care providers will be essential in limiting transmission in the U.S.

When should you seek medical attention for novel coronavirus?

If you’ve traveled from China in the last 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, call your healthcare provider before going to get care and tell them about your symptoms and travel. They can provide you instructions for seeking care so that you do not expose others. Your healthcare provider will determine if you should be tested for novel coronavirus.

Is there a vaccine in the works for the novel coronavirus?

Currently, there is no vaccine for this virus or other coronaviruses, although scientists at NIH reported they are going to take steps towards the development of a vaccine.

More information on 2019 novel coronavirus is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website as well as Public Health – Seattle & King County’s website.

Originally posted on January 21, 2020.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.