The United States issued its highest travel alert for China on Thursday night, advising all Americans to avoid travel to that country because of a coronavirus outbreak that has now sickened nearly 10,000 and killed just over 200.
The advisory came just hours after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak an international public health emergency and the United States reported its first case of person-to-person transmission of the virus.
On Friday, U.S. health officials announced that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a mandatory quarantine for the 195 Americans who were evacuated Tuesday from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The quarantine would restrict the evacuees’ movements for 14 days from when they left Wuhan, mostly because U.S. health officials still aren’t sure just how easily the virus spreads.
“If we take strong measures now, we may be able to blunt the impact of the virus on the United States,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a media briefing Friday. “While we recognize this is an unprecedented action, we are facing an unprecedented public health threat,” she explained.
“We are preparing as if this were the next pandemic, but we are hopeful still that this is not and will not be the case,” Messonnier added. “This is the first time in 50 years that CDC has issued a quarantine order. We would rather be remembered for overreacting than for underreacting.”
The evacuees will stay at the California military base where they were first taken on Tuesday, where they will continue to be monitored for any signs of illness, she said.
“Screening with a laboratory test in this setting does not help us identify people clearly who are going to be going on to illness,” Messonnier explained. “We do not believe a negative result on this test means someone is out of danger for developing this disease or communicating it to someone else.”
Messonnier left open the possibility that other quarantines will occur as more Americans leave China and return to the United States.
“The State Department has already announced they will be repatriating additional travelers from Wuhan,” she said. “We are working closely with them to determine how those travelers will be processed.”
Meanwhile, Chinese officials said Friday that the death toll in that country rose by 43 in the last 24 hours, hitting 213, The New York Times reported. Chinese health officials have confirmed that the virus is spreading from person-to-person, and that it can be spread by a person who is not showing symptoms of infection.
In the United States, health officials on Thursday confirmed the first U.S. case of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus.
The patient is the husband of a Chicago woman who was the second confirmed case in the United States. She had traveled to Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, and fell ill upon her return home. The husband is in his 60s and has underlying health conditions, U.S. health officials said during a media briefing. Six cases of coronavirus have now been reported in the United States.
“This second patient [the husband] did not travel to China, indicating the first person-to-person transmission of novel coronavirus in the United States,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“The risk to the general public in Illinois remains low,” Ezike said during the Thursday media briefing. “This person-to-person spread was between two very close contacts, a wife and husband. The virus is not spreading widely across the community.”
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed.
“We understand this may be concerning, but based on what we know now our assessment remains that the risk to the public is low,” Redfield said during the same briefing.
“The vast majority of Americans have not had recent travel to China, the high-risk areas of transmission where human-to-human transmission is occurring,” he added.
U.S. health experts said person-to-person transmission in the United States was inevitable.
“The main takeaway is this confirms something we already knew: that there was likely person-to-person spread in China with this virus. Otherwise the numbers wouldn’t be as high as they are,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Pena, director of global health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
In China, the case count kept climbing on Friday, with cases of what is dubbed the 2019-nCoV coronavirus reaching 9,692, the Times reported. That eclipses the 5,327 cases reported in China during the 2003 SARS outbreak.
Meanwhile, countries and regions around the world took steps to cut the risk of the virus spreading to their citizens.
Hong Kong has barred entry to visitors from Hubei province, which is at the center of the outbreak, and travel agencies were ordered to cancel group tours nationwide. Airlines around the world have suspended flights to China, and Russia closed its 2,600-mile border with China until March 1, the Times reported.
Outside China, 18 countries have now reported cases of coronavirus.
Thailand and Japan have each reported 14 cases of infection; Hong Kong and Singapore have 10; Taiwan has eight; Australia, Malaysia and Macau each have seven; France and the United States have six; South Korea, Germany and the United Arab Emirates each have four; Canada has three; Britain, Vietnam and Italy each have two; and India, the Philippines, Nepal, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Finland each have one.
Some cases recorded in Taiwan, Germany, Vietnam, Japan, France and the United States involved patients who had not been to China. No deaths have been reported outside China.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.