SALT LAKE CITY — Utah health officials are closely monitoring the new coronavirus that emerged in China after neighboring Arizona reported cases of the illness.
“When we got information originally from (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) about the cases that have been occurring from China and coming into the U.S. — travelers coming into the U.S. — we’ve certainly been on high alert. We’ve actually stood up what we call our incident command structure,” said Becky Ward, health educator with the Utah Department of Health.
She described the command structure as a network connecting public health agencies throughout the state to work together and disperse information quickly.
Part of the effort includes ensuring investigations and tests are being conducted properly and identifying people who might have the virus, Ward said. Currently, the incident command team meets once a week, but could start meeting more as the situation evolves.
Five cases have been confirmed in Arizona, Washington, Illinois and California, the Associated Press reported. No U.S. deaths have occurred from the virus, but more than 80 people in China have died from the illness that’s related to the deadly SARS and MERS viruses, according to the AP.
Though the CDC considers the immediate health risk in the U.S. from the illness low, officials say more cases are “likely to be identified in the coming days, including more cases in the United States.”
Salt Lake City International Airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said the airport is also “currently monitoring the situation,” but airports with nonstop flights from China — which the Salt Lake airport does not have — are most at risk.
“We do have a protocol in place if this were to become an issue at SLC,” Volmer said.
Though the state hasn’t seen a confirmed case, Utah health officials want to be prepared. The health department quickly learns when a case is confirmed in a neighboring state.
“We don’t want to wait until we have a case of something. We want to start preparing,” Ward explained.
She said she could not discuss whether any illnesses in Utah have been investigated as potential cases of coronavirus.
The virus spreads like the cold and flu, by respiratory droplets, the health educator said. It is believed to have emerged in China’s Hubei province, where people were eating infected animals like bats. The virus is now being passed from person-to-person.
“We’ve seen that with other viruses.... It’s possible for viruses to change and then to jump species, so that’s not uncommon,” Ward said.
There’s no antiviral treatment for the virus, so patients can only receive supportive care for their symptoms, which include mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough and difficulty breathing, the CDC says.
Though China has seen at least 81 deaths, according to the AP, many of the cases have been mild, with cold-like symptoms not requiring hospitalization.
“And so that’s what we’re trying to monitor, again, looking at cases that have occurred in China and any traveler that may be returning from Wuhan or the Hubei province to make sure that we’re not seeing a change in the type of transmission or severity of symptom,” Ward said.
The CDC is currently the only agency in the U.S. performing tests for the illness, she said.
Health officials hope to see a decline in people leaving China with the illness after Wuhan, within the Hubei province, limited travel in and out.
While the flu tends to hit quickly, the coronavirus has an incubation period of two to 14 days. Some who returned to the U.S. from China became sick later on, Ward said.
It has been thought that patients do not spread the virus before they become symptomatic, but a Chinese health official now claims the virus is infectious during incubation, multiple outlets reported on Monday.
Ward urged people who think they might have the virus to call airports or hospitals ahead before traveling or going in for care so they can be kept away from others.
If you have symptoms including a fever, difficulty breathing, and have traveled to the Hubei province within the last two weeks, you should seek immediate medical care, Ward said.
To prevent the spread of the virus and others, Ward said people should stay home when they’re sick, cover coughs and sneezes, and disinfect frequently touched objects.