PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) is coordinating with state health workers as federal officials monitor a respiratory illness outbreak caused by a new form of coronavirus spreading globally from Wuhan, China, infecting five people in the U.S., but not locally so far.
RIDOH has established a Novel Coronavirus Task Force to coordinate the preparedness steps being taken throughout the Department. It includes leadership from the State Health Laboratories, the Center for Acute Infectious Disease Epidemiology, and the Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, according to the department.
RIDOH has also established a system to receive and follow-up on illness reports from Rhode Island healthcare providers. RIDOH has also regularly sent providers summaries of the national situation, criteria to guide evaluation of patients, and guidance on specimen collection, testing, and reporting, the department reports.
Healthcare providers have been instructed to evaluate patients for possible coronavirus infection if they have a fever and symptoms of lower respiratory illness (such as cough or difficulty breathing), and if they have traveled to Hubei Province, China (which includes Wuhan) in the two weeks before symptom onset (or if they had close contact with a person who is being evaluated for coronavirus).
What’s a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The viruses typically cause mild cold and flu-like symptoms. There are four main types, (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta) and six previously known strains that infect humans:
- 229E (alpha coronavirus)
- NL63 (alpha coronavirus)
- OC43 (beta coronavirus)
- HKU1 (beta coronavirus)
- MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS)
- SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS
The new virus, 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), makes seven.
When a coronavirus gets serious
This new strain has only occurred in people since December 2019. To date, there have been several thousand cases diagnosed internationally, mostly in China. While Chinese officials report person-to-person spread of coronavirus, person-to-person spread in the United States has not yet been detected, according to the CDC.
Some coronaviruses infect animals, and those sometimes evolve to make people sick, becoming new human coronaviruses, as with SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV, and in this latest case, 2019-nCoV, the CDC reports.
While most of such viruses are responsible for mild cold and flu-like symptoms, MERS symptoms usually progress to pneumonia. About 3 or 4 out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died. MERS cases continue to occur, primarily in the Arabian Peninsula.
SARS symptoms often included fever, chills, and body aches which usually progressed to pneumonia. Astute health care readers will remember the outbreak associated with SARS in 2002 – 2003 with 8,098 illnesses and 774 deaths. No human cases of SARS have been reported anywhere in the world since 2004.
Reported cases from 2019-nCoV range from mild illness (similar to a common cold) to severe pneumonia that requires hospitalization. So far, deaths have been reported mainly in older adults who had other health conditions.
The novel coronavirus’ fatality rate according to reported cases and deaths from the World Health Organization is estimated at about 3 percent. By comparison, the case fatality rate with seasonal flu is less than 0.01%.
Protecting yourself from the new coronavirus
Because human coronaviruses most commonly spread through respiratory droplets, Rhode Islanders are reminded to take the same measures that healthcare providers recommend annually to prevent the spread of the flu and other viruses:
- Get your flu shot and encourage the people around you to do the same.
- Wash your hands often throughout the day. Use warm water and soap. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based hand gel.
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow. Flu is spread through coughing or sneezing on other people or into your hands. Cover your coughs and sneezes to prevent others from getting sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious foods.
- Keep surfaces (especially bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, and toys for children) clean by wiping them down with a household disinfectant.
CDC precautions against the new coronavirus
The CDC has taken a number of steps in response to coronavirus, including developing a diagnostic test to detect it in clinical specimens and conducting entry screening of passengers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan, China to five major airports in the United States: Atlanta (ATL), Chicago (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX), New York City (JFK), and San Francisco (SFO).
Enhanced screening measures are also in place at 20 other airports. Finally, the CDC is now recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China.