Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Novel Coronavirus Spreads Throughout Asia and is Confirmed in the U.S.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking a never-before-seen strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Coronaviruses, able to infect both humans and animals, can cause mild to severe respiratory illness in humans. Immunocompromised persons, children, and older adults are especially vulnerable to infection. No vaccine currently exists for any of the coronaviruses. Human coronaviruses are capable of spreading from person-to-person through respiratory secretions, like those produced from coughing or sneezing. Consequences of coronavirus infection can be as minor as common cold symptoms or as serious as death.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Graphic: Janet Loehrke/USA TODAY

Two related, and dangerous, human coronaviruses include SARS (SARS-CoV) and MERS (MERS-CoV). During a 2003 SARS outbreak, over 8,000 people worldwide were infected and almost 800 died. The biggest known outbreak of MERS occurred in 2015, killing about three or four out of every 10 people with the disease. In previous outbreaks, both SARS and MERS were imported into the U.S., demonstrating the possibility of rapid global spread of life-threatening infectious diseases, regardless of foreign origin.

The 2019-nCoV strain was first identified in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019, and has since infected hundreds of people and caused multiple deaths throughout China. This particular coronavirus is thought to originate from animals, as those infected were linked to a seafood and animal market (closed down on January 1, 2020). This fast-acting coronavirus spread quickly to other countries, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. In response, five U.S. airports, and others across the globe, have implemented health screenings to identify travelers that might be ill, specifically those on direct or connecting flights from Wuhan, China. CDC has also raised the travel notice to Level 3 for China, encouraging travelers to avoid non-essential travel. Wuhan, China recently temporarily suspended public transportation services to control the spread of disease, asking its residents to halt any travel outside of the city, as well. Furthermore, Olympic qualifying events that were to be held in Wuhan have been canceled. While these actions seek to contain further spread, there are already outbreaks outside of Wuhan.

Affirming fears of further international spread, on January 21, 2020, CDC announced a confirmed case of 2019-nCoV in the State of Washington. CDC deployed staff to Washington to begin contact-tracing in order to find others that may have been exposed. On January 24, the CDC confirmed a second case in the US, identified in Chicago, Illinois.

The understanding of 2019-nCoV continues to evolve, but current patterns and historical experiences with SARS and MERS indicate that the possibility of person-to-person disease transmission is likely. This is of particular concern with Lunar New Year celebrations in-progress in China, constituting the largest human migration event worldwide. It is currently estimated that more than three billion trips will take place between January 21st and March 1st for the celebrations. This level of movement in China could contribute to a “perfect storm” for spread of the disease.

The disease’s quick progression even caused the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Committee to convene January 22-23, 2020 to decide if the 2019-nCoV outbreak should be declared as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). A PHEIC designation by WHO is reserved for an “extraordinary event” that may pose a global public health risk through international spread and/or potentially necessitate a coordinated international response, indicating the severity of this novel coronavirus. Past PHEIC declarations have included Ebola (2014) and Zika virus (2016) outbreaks. Given the breadth and escalation of the 2019-nCoV outbreak, the public health world will be monitoring this situation for the foreseeable future.

An event of this nature demonstrates how quickly uncontrolled cases of infectious disease in one area of the world can morph into an issue of global concern. This outbreak highlights the importance of closely monitoring public health events, as well as planning for and exercising public health-related capacities in the emergency management field.

The Hagerty Team will continue providing information and updates on current events and disasters impacting the nation. Visit Disaster Discourse for the latest information.

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