While coronavirus spreads rapidly in China, still only 5 cases in U.S., government officials confirm

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Federal health officials say while Americans may be worried, the threat of coronavirus right now is extremely low in the U.S. (Federal (Sarah Stierch/CC BY 4.0)

While the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly in China, the number of cases in the U.S. has held steady with only five people sick with the illness, federal health officials said this morning.

China has now reported more than 4,500 cases of coronavirus since the outbreak began there, with 100 deaths, said HHS Secretary Alex Azar, at a press conference to provide an update on the disease.

The five cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus in the U.S. so far have been reported in California, Arizona, Illinois, and Washington.

“Americans should know that this is a potentially very serious public health threat, but, at this point, Americans should not worry for their own health,” Azar said.

At this time, health officials said the risk to Americans from the virus is extremely low. All of the five patients in the U.S. had direct contact in China and there is no person-to-person transmission of the disease in the U.S

Many questions remain about coronavirus and more than 60 cases have been reported in other countries, he said.

Azar said the government is prepared to take all steps necessary to protect Americans and said he would not hesitate to declare a public health emergency if recommended by health officials. He said in light of the quickly changing situation, the possibility of travel restrictions are “on the table” as officials constantly access the situation.

Currently, Americans are being advised to reconsider or postpone travel to China.

Azar said he and President Donald Trump are “speaking regularly” about the outbreak and the president is closely monitoring the situation.

The U.S. has offered to send a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to China to provide assistance, he said.

CDC Director Robert Redfield described it as a “rapidly changing situation” with 18 international locations identifying cases of coronavirus. The U.S. is expanding screening to 20 airports to identify people who may be infected with the virus, he said.

Providers should be on the lookout for patients who have traveled to China and are experiencing fever or respiratory symptoms, he said. Healthcare workers who are caring for infected patients should follow infection control procedures, he said.

“Right now there is no spread in our (U.S.) communities,” he said.

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Whether there is asymptomatic transmission of the virus, where someone can catch the virus from someone who doesn’t show symptoms, is unclear, officials said. Chinese officials have reported such cases, but Redfield said the CDC has not had the opportunity to review that data and have not been able to confirm those reports.

Asked about reports that Americans were buying face masks to protect themselves from transmission of the coronavirus, Azar said, “it is unnecessary” and reiterated the risk in the U.S. of contracting the disease is extremely low.

Public health officials are tracing everyone who came into contact with the five confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States to watch for signs of any illness, said Nancy Messonnier, director of National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease (NCIRD). “Right now we have only a handful of patients in the U.S.,” she said.

There is currently no proven therapy to treat coronavirus, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Scientists are working on developing a vaccine and Fauci said he was optimistic a phase one trial would take place within the next three months.

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