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Coronavirus spreads to Los Angeles, Orange County: How concerned should we be about spread?

China struggles to contain coronavirus outbreak, Beijing - 24 Jan 2020
Chinese passengers wear masks at the Beijing railway station on Friday. The outbreak of coronavirus has so far spread from China to the U.S., Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.
(Wu Hong/EPA-EFE/REX)

Los Angeles and Orange County health officials are dealing with their first cases of a patient with the new strain of coronavirus. But they are stressing that there is no evidence the virus has been spread beyond the two patients.

What do we know about Orange County patient?

The Orange County recently visited the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.

The patient is in good condition and is in isolation at a hospital.

They are following up with anyone who has had close contact with the patient, but also noted that people with casual contact — such as visiting the same grocery store or movie theater — “are at minimal risk of developing infection.”

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“The risk of local transmission remains low,” officials said. While officials were waiting to hear lab confirmation of the virus, the patient was instructed on how to reduce exposing the virus to others.

How about the L.A. case?

This patient was also in Wuhan recently.

“The infected person presented themselves for care once they noticed that they were not feeling well and is currently receiving medical treatment. There is no immediate threat to the general public, no special precautions are required, and people should not be excluded from activities based on their race, country of origin, or recent travel if they do not have symptoms of respiratory illness,” officials said in a statement.

Are these the first California cases?

Yes.

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As of Friday, 18 people between the ages 3 to 58 had been tested for the virus in California, according to the state Department of Public Health. They included a traveler who arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from Mexico City and was taken to a hospital early Thursday for an evaluation.

Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, said in a video statement last week that the immediate health risk to the general public in California is low, based on current information, but that the department is carefully monitoring the virus and considers it “a serious public health concern.”

What is the virus?

It’s a new type of coronavirus that scientists have not seen before.

Coronaviruses circulate in a variety of animals, including humans. Some types can cause common colds. Others have evolved into severe illnesses like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The virus at the center of the outbreak in China emerged as a pneumonia-like illness. Most of the people who got sick had a link to a large seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, suggesting that it had jumped from animals to humans, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The market was closed earlier this month for disinfection.

Officials became more concerned about the outbreak when cases were detected in Thailand and Japan among people who had recently visited Wuhan. Health authorities worldwide are now adopting various strategies, including airport screenings, in an effort to contain the virus’ spread.

How concerned are experts about the spread in the U.S.?

“Don’t panic unless you’re paid to panic,” said Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist at UC Riverside who has studied many deadly outbreaks.

“Public health workers should be on the lookout. The government should be ready to provide resources. Transmitting timely facts to the public is key,” Brown said. “But for everyone else: Breathe.”

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More than three weeks into the outbreak that has caused 56 deaths and spread to at least 2,000 people in 14 countries and territories, scientists have learned some important things about the virus.

It is a coronavirus with such symptoms as fever and difficulty with breathing in people who are young and healthy. Many of the deaths tied to the coronavirus to date have been in people who were at least 50 years old with underlying medical problems or weakened immune systems, Chinese officials said.

“We don’t have evidence yet to suggest this is any more virulent than the flu you see in the U.S. each year,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiology researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Most people, with proper medical attention, will do just fine.”


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