HHS Stepping Up Traveler Screening In Light of China Virus Woes

January 29, 2020 by Dan McCue
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks at a news conference about the federal government's response to a virus outbreak originating in China, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON – The United States will expand screenings of international travelers in response to the outbreak of the potentially deadly new coronavirus, the Department of Health and Human Services announced.

“At this point Americans should not worry for their own safety,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters Tuesday.

The decision to step up screenings is merely a precaution, he said, in the face of “a very fast-moving, constantly changing situation.”

China has confirmed more than 4,500 people with the respiratory illness, and that at least 100 patients have died.

The virus, which in severe cases can cause pneumonia, has also been identified in other countries, most recently, the United Arab Emirates.

Here in the U.S. there are five confirmed patients, all of whom had traveled to the hard-hit city of Wuhan, China — and no sign that they have spread the illness to anyone around them.

Azar, who was accompanied to his press conference by infection specialists, said while the death toll in China is alarming, it’s typical for the first patients identified in an outbreak to be “the most severe cases.

He said over time doctors may find many more cases, but of a much milder variety.

Asked how easily the coronavirus spreads, Azar said that is one of the unknowns at this point.

He said while anecdotal reports suggest one contagious patient could infect 1.5 to 3.5 others, it’s really too soon to know with scientific certainty.

He also noted that one patient with measles could spread it to 12 to 18 others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it wants to send its own scientists to China for a first-hand look at the crisis and to see if he they can answer many of the questions still surrounding the virus.

It has published material on the outbreak here.

Tuesday, the World Health Organization said it also hopes to send an international team to China as soon as it can.

Its coronavirus page is located here.

In the meantime, the State Department has chartered a plane to evacuate diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, and some other Americans.

Azar said there will be doctors on the flight to check all the passengers so health officials can decide if additional steps are needed.

Without a vaccine or treatments, the U.S. and others are depending on traditional public health steps to prevent a wider outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is stepping up its checks of incoming travelers.

It already had been screening for illness among passengers arriving from the epicenter of China’s outbreak at five U.S. airports in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta.

Now, CDC is sending extra staff to other “quarantine stations” to screen arrivals at a total of 18 airports around the country and at two border crossings, in El Paso, Texas, and San Diego.

The additional airport screenings will be in Anchorage, Alaska; Boston; Dallas; Detroit; El Paso, Texas; Honolulu; Houston, Miami, Minneapolis; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia; San Diego; Seattle; Washington, D.C. (Dulles); and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Azar said he has directed $105 million to fight the outbreak. Among the next steps, the CDC developed a test for the virus and aims to make it usable by state health departments, to speed diagnosis of suspected cases. Research also is under way to develop a vaccine or treatment.

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