A person in Washington state has been infected with a mysterious, deadly lung virus first reported in Wuhan, China, marking the first case confirmed in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that it determined that the sick person had the virus, which has infected 291 people in China and killed six. Officials said they expected more cases would arrive in the U.S. and spread to other countries.
The person infected was a man in his 30s in a county north of Seattle. John Wiesman, the Washington secretary of health, said the man “acted quickly” to get medical attention and was isolated quickly.
“His actions gave us a head start … The risk to the public is low,” Wiesman said.
The contagion has also spread to Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. Scientists still don’t understand the virus well. While they know it’s contagious, they don’t know exactly how easily it transmits from person to person.
Airport screenings began at three major U.S. airports on Friday, a process whereby airport staff takes people’s temperatures and isolate them if they have a fever. The CDC announced Tuesday that 1,200 people had been screened, but none had been referred to a hospital, and that additional screenings were set to begin at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The patient, who is American, had recently returned from Wuhan and had come through airports before screening started. Officials said, however, that he wasn’t experiencing symptoms when he was flying, so he probably wouldn’t have been caught during airport screening anyway. Officials weren’t certain which other airports he traveled to before arriving in Seattle. He arrived in Seattle Jan. 15 and sought medical help Jan. 19.
CDC scientists confirmed through testing on Monday that the patient was ill with the new virus.
The contagion is believed to have originated from a fish and meat market in Wuhan, but scientists don’t know from which dead animal it may have come. The virus is formally named “2019-nCoV” and is part of a family of viruses known as coronavirus. SARS, a virus that saw a massive outbreak in 2003, is also a form of coronavirus. Many of the cases have shown symptoms similar to a mild cold, but severe cases have shown symptoms more like pneumonia.
On Tuesday, China’s top health official asked people living in Wuhan to consider staying put in the city and suggested that others not travel there.
Officials at the World Health Organization are meeting Wednesday to discuss whether they should designate the virus a “public health emergency of international concern.” Such a designation would alert other countries to send aid and would improve reporting of the illness. It would also give WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus temporary power to recommend that countries not implement any travel or trade bans.
Health officials tend to push back on the proposal of travel bans because they’ve been shown not to work. Countries that know they’ll be isolated won’t report cases of contagion, causing viruses to spread and making the problem worse.