Pneumonia-Like Coronavirus: Healthcare Community Prepares for Potential Outbreak

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February 7, 2020

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Updated Feb. 25: U.S. public health officials are preparing for a possible outbreak of the pneumonia-like respiratory illness caused by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, which originated in China in December and has infected more than 80,000 people, the vast majority in China. There are about 2,000 cases confirmed in several other nations.

The World Health Organization has given an official name to the disease that is causing the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak: COVID-19.

The coronavirus almost certainly will begin spreading in communities within the U.S., and everyone should prepare, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a news briefing on Feb. 25.

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” said Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

There have been growing fears that the coronavirus spread outside of China may become a pandemic, further disrupting the global economy. Iran, South Korea and Italy are fighting new clusters of infection, even though China’s Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak, seems to be showing signs of a slower infection rate.

More than 2,700 deaths have been reported. All but 33 of the deaths have been in China. Outside mainland China, the deaths linked to the virus have been reported in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, France, Italy, Taiwan, South Korea and Iran.

Public health officials have confirmed a total of 14 cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Another 39 Americans who have tested positive have been repatriated to the United States — three from Wuhan, a central Chinese City of 11 million people and the epicenter of the outbreak, and 36 from a cruise ship that had been docked in Japan.

Of the 14 cases confirmed in the U.S., 12 are travel-related cases: in California, Washington state, Illinois, Arizona, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and in Texas. All 12 individuals had visited Wuhan, China. Two of the 14 U.S. cases resulted from person-to-person transmissions of the virus. Both were spouses (one in Illinois and one in California) of travelers who were diagnosed after returning home from Wuhan, China.

“The complete clinical picture with regard to COVID-19 is not fully understood. Reported illnesses have ranged from mild to severe …” states the CDC.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. The declaration serves to acknowledge that the disease now represents a serious risk beyond China, where it emerged in December.

Miami International Airport (MIA) is screening travelers for potential cases of the Wuhan coronavirus, under the direction of the CDC. The quarantine station at MIA is one of 20 operated by federal health officials at major airports across the country.

Symptoms associated with this virus have included fever, cough, chills and trouble breathing. Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. The sacs could fill with fluid, which causes cough with phlegm or pus. The incubation period — or the time elapsed between exposure and when symptoms first become apparent — for COVID-19 is between 2 to 14 days.

South Florida healthcare professionals are preparing for any possible outbreak.

Baptist Health South Florida is screening patients at entry points, including ERs and urgent care facilities, for pneumonia-like symptoms, similar to those reported in COVID-19 patients, said Anexis Lopez, R.N, manager of Infection Control at Doctors Hospital, part of Baptist Health South Florida. Baptist Health will work closely with local and national public health officials if there is an outbreak.

“We’re vigilant and already screening anybody who has traveled to the affected area within the past 14 days for fever, cough or any trouble breathing. We want to make sure we identify and isolate any potential patients of the virus.”

Ms. Lopez offers the same infection protection tips for the public that apply to avoiding the flu or other viruses. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water is a priority. So is keeping your distance from anyone who is sneezing or coughing.

While originally thought to be spreading from animal to person, the CDC states that “there are growing indications that limited person-to-person spread is happening.” But it is “unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people,” the CDC adds.

Chinese pubic health officials say that people carrying the virus, but not showing symptoms, may still be able to infect others.

“If you’re traveling, you need to protect yourself,” says Ms. Lopez. “And if you’re next to somebody who’s coughing or sneezing, you should stay away from that person as much as possible.”

The COVID-19 outbreak, which began in December in a seafood and poultry market in Wuhan, continues to spread. Chinese authorities have imposed restrictions on public transport and travel throughout the nation.

The CDC is developing a diagnostic test kit to detect the virus in clinical specimens. This would shorten the amount of time it takes healthcare professionals at U.S. hospitals and other medical sites to detect the infection. Currently, specimens are sent overnight and tested for COVID-19 at the CDC in Atlanta. In the coming days and weeks, the CDC says it will share these tests with domestic and international partners.

“While severe illness, including illness resulting in several deaths, has been reported in China, other patients have had milder illness and been discharged,” the CDC said in an update.

For more information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website.

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