The first travel-related case of the novel coronavirus has been detected in the U.S. in a man from Washington state, CDC officials said on Tuesday.
The man tested positive for the novel coronavirus via laboratory testing, CDC officials said. According to Washington health officials, he arrived without symptoms on an “indirect” flight into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 15, prior to implementation of the new screening procedures at other U.S. airports. Described as “an astute gentleman,” the passenger was aware of the virus and promptly shared information with his provider when his symptoms developed.
Currently, the patient is hospitalized “out of an abundance of caution,” but not because of severe illness. He reported he did not visit any of the implicated markets in the Wuhan area.
A statement released by the CDC details how the man sought care at a nearby medical facility, where health professionals suspected novel coronavirus, and based on the patient’s travel history and symptoms, sent specimens out for testing. CDC confirmed the diagnosis on Monday.
Washington health officials emphasized that this was one of the hospitals that had “done a drill” about this type of illness, including how to transport a patient in an ambulance and what type of isolation is needed. They said that the patient here is “isolated and poses low risk to staff or to the general public.”
Julie Fischer, PhD, of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told MedPage Today that this looks to be a similar pattern for human-to-human transmission as SARS, where currently most cases of this novel coronavirus “are probably close contacts,” including healthcare workers. Chinese health officials announced that 14 healthcare workers had been infected.
“This is a big heads up to the rest of the world to go ahead and start preparing your healthcare workers and make sure they have proper equipment,” she said. “It’s a reminder of what we already knew was a risk.”
Fischer said that in addition to taking precautions to avoid infection (such as personal protective equipment), clinicians should “pay attention to evolving guidance.”
The CDC had already decided to step up screening at two additional U.S. airports prior to this case being reported, with additional screening being added at both Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) this week. In addition, passengers from Wuhan will be “funneled” into airports with enhanced screening measures, CDC officials said.
“The long incubation period [for the virus] also makes early detection much harder, especially as we do not know how many passengers have flown abroad and how many will do so in the coming weeks,” Stratfor Senior East Asia analyst Zhixing Zhang said in a statement.
Fischer added that screening will be especially challenging, given that this is in the middle of increased flu activity in the U.S. and that clinicians must rely on a “non-specific, place-based case definition” (based on travel) until new diagnostics emerge.
She emphasized the importance of “a good diagnostic test,” saying that only a handful of labs are capable of testing for the virus now. Once molecular testing is available, such as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, the CDC will figure out how best to optimize it and share it more widely, Fischer said.
Indeed, CDC officials said that they are having “active conversations” about diagnostics, as well as research into vaccines.
Over the weekend, the case count for the novel coronavirus rose to over 300, with 6 deaths, according to news reports. The World Health Organization (WHO) is scheduled to meet on Wednesday about whether this virus constitutes an international health emergency.