Federal officials announced Friday that they will immediately begin screening passengers flying into three major U.S. airports for a new, worrisome virus that has infected dozens in China.
Health workers will screen passengers coming from Wuhan, a major city in central China, into Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
China has reported 45 cases of a new kind of a coronavirus that officials are calling 2019-nCoV. There have been an additional three cases outside of China. The virus has caused two deaths worldwide, federal officials say.
What is this virus?
In December, China reported an outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness that appeared to be caused by a novel coronavirus, a kind of virus that circulates in animals and in rare cases can spread to humans.
Most of the people who got sick had a link to a large seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, suggesting an animal-to-human transmission, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, in a call with reporters Friday.
The market was closed earlier this month for disinfection.
Officials became more concerned about the outbreak when cases were detected in Japan and Thailand among people who had recently visited Wuhan, pointing to possible transmission among humans. Health authorities worldwide are now adopting various strategies to stop further spread of the virus.
“This is a serious situation,” Messonnier said.
OK, it’s a new virus. How bad is it?
Public health officials worry whenever a new virus arrives on scene because there are no treatments for it and they don’t know how people will react to the illness. Plus, no one has any immunity to a new virus to protect them, Messonnier said.
Coronaviruses in particular are alarming because of previous outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome and severe acute respiratory syndrome, other coronaviruses more commonly known as MERS and SARS.
China’s 2003 outbreak of SARS was believed to have originated through animal-to-human transmission in a similar marketplace. That outbreak ultimately killed more than 800 worldwide.
“Those were quite complicated, difficult outbreaks with many people getting ill and deaths,” Messonnier said. “Understanding that this pathogen looks — at least from a genetic perspective — like those pathogens makes us especially worried.”
Who is being screened?
The screening only applies to people who are flying in from Wuhan.
Screening was to begin Friday at JFK airport and on Saturday at LAX and SFO. The San Francisco and New York airports are the only two in the country that receive direct flights from Wuhan, officials said.
LAX was added to the screening because of a large number of passengers flying into LAX who are indirectly coming from Wuhan, said Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s division of global migration and quarantine in the press call.
Arriving passengers will answer questions about any respiratory symptoms and will also have their temperature taken, he said. Those whose symptoms don’t match up with the new coronavirus will not be detained.
Patients with worrisome symptoms will be transported to a nearby location — officials would not say where exactly — for further testing. There they will answer more questions and will be tested for the new virus as well as other illnesses, such as the flu, that may be causing their illness. The testing could take hours, he said.
“It’s unlikely they’ll be able to make an immediate connecting flight if they have one,” Cetron said.
About 100 additional CDC workers will be deployed to join existing public health staff at the three airports to do the screenings.
The busiest seasons for travel to the U.S. from China are August and January, Cetron said. The lunar new year on Jan. 25 is expected to draw large numbers of Chinese travelers, he said.
“We’re expecting the screening over the next couple of weeks could include as many as 5,000 people across three airports,” he said.
I’m not flying to or from China. Do I need to be worried?
No. The risk of the virus circulating in the United States is considered low.
“For families sitting around the dinner table tonight, this is not something that they generally need to worry about,” Messonnier said.