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The state health department said the novel coronavirus from China is a low risk for Michigan residents, with no cases yet emerging in the state.

While local health officials say they are not concerned, they are keeping a close watch on the outbreak from China of the potentially deadly virus after the first United States case was confirmed Tuesday in Seattle.

"There are multiple conference calls between the CDC and state health departments," said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the state health department. "While there is some evidence of limited person-to-person transmission, currently the risk to the general American public is still deemed low."

Governments around the world hope to prevent the virus from spreading by setting up surveillance of airline passengers during the busy Lunar New Year travel season.

Health screenings have been implemented at five United States airports that receive a large portion of travelers from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak. The screenings have been set up by CDC, and Customs and Border Patrol at San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta airports to identify ill travelers and inform those exposed what to do if they become ill while in the U.S.

Detroit Metro Airport has 12 direct Air China flights, but officials deferred comment to Border Patrol, which stated precautions are not being taken in Detroit.

"Based on current information, the CDC has determined that the novel coronavirus presents a low risk to the American public; however, they are taking proactive preparedness precautions," a CBP representative said in a statement.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell is requesting an update from the CDC on what steps the agency is taking to ensure all travelers are safe.

"People are concerned about the potential health implications of the virus and it is important that CDC continue to build on its proactive response to safeguard Americans’ public health and safety," Dingell wrote to the CDC. "Given the spread of this virus, as well as indications that human-to-human transmission is occurring, it is imperative that Congress and the American people be kept up-to-date on the latest steps that CDC is taking in light of these developments."

The U.S. is the fifth country to report cases of the illness, following China, Thailand, Japan and South Korea. The virus has infected more than 440 people and killed nine people in China, according to the Chinese governm.

A U.S. citizen, who recently returned to Seattle last week, was diagnosed with the virus after traveling to an area near Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began last month. The man is in his 30s and is in good condition at a hospital in Everett, outside Seattle, according to an Associated Press report.

The virus carries flu-like symptoms including fever and cough, but the identifying factor is travel or being around someone who has traveled, said Dr. Marcus Zervos, head of infectious diseases at Henry Ford Hospital.

"It is a concern to the medical community, but not something the general public needs to be alarmed about because it does require travel or to be around someone that’s acquired it, which is still pretty rare," he said. "We're learning more about it as we see more cases. The first were very severe with hospitalizations and deaths, but the more it spreads, the more moderate types of infections we see. It's those that are already unhealthy that it is fatal for."

The original source was tracked to people who spent time at a seafood and live-stock food market in Wuhan. The city hosts more than 10 million people and because the virus has been identified in 14 health care workers, it's clear the virus can be spread between people, Zervos said.

"Wuhan has a large international airport, but all of these screenings being done are much more likely to identify people who have the flu," Zervos said. "In reality, the flu is much, much more of a concern that people should be worried about because in real-time, it's causing 200,000 hospitalizations and 19,000 deaths so far in the United States."

Since Oct. 1, 292 (64 pediatric, 228 adult) influenza-related hospitalizations were reported in Michigan, according to health officials.

Detroit Medical Center officials said in light of the first case being confirmed in Seattle, patients will be asked if they have traveled or been in contact with someone who has traveled to China.

"Since we are seeing so much of the flu, we wouldn't test for coronavirus unless they have a travel history," said Dr. Teena Chopra with the DMC. "The virus is very scary, similar but different to SARS that appeared in 2000. We advise people to wash their hands and not to travel to this area, especially during the time of Lunar New Year."

Sutfin said there is some instruction from the CDC on what people can do to protect themselves, but it only pertains to travelers to Wuhan at this time. 

► More: As virus spreads, anxiety rises in China and overseas

Here’s what to know about the illnesses:

The disease

Scientists have identified it as a new kind of coronavirus. There are many known types of coronaviruses. Some cause the common cold. Others found in bats, camels and other animals have evolved into more severe illnesses such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). 

Why is it called a coronavirus?

Corona comes from Latin and refers to crowns or halos. Under a microscope, these viruses resemble crowns or halos.

When was the new virus found?

The outbreak started late last month in the city of Wuhan in central China, apparently at a food market.

How many people have it and how widespread is it?

About 300 cases have been identified. There are about 260 cases in Wuhan, according to Chinese officials. Cases in other Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, total around 30. They were reported with the onset of an annual travel rush for the Lunar New Year holiday. Many Chinese travel abroad for the holiday and a few cases have been confirmed outside the mainland — in South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Taiwan. That travel rush is expected to spread the disease more widely.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever. Shortness of breath, chills and body aches are associated with more dangerous kinds of coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How are coronaviruses spread?

Many coronaviruses can spread through coughing or sneezing, or by touching an infected person. Initially, authorities in China said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission in the present outbreak. But an expert panel has concluded there have been at least a few cases of people catching it from others, raising the possibility it could spread more widely. 

Could it be as bad as SARS?

So far, the virus appears less dangerous and infectious than SARS, which also started in China and killed about 800 people. As of Tuesday, six deaths had been reported, all in Wuhan. Viruses can mutate into more dangerous and contagious forms, and it’s too early to say what will happen with this one.

Source: Associated Press

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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