State officials investigate possible cases of coronavirus in Michigan

State officials said Friday they are investigating possible Michigan cases of the new coronavirus that originated in China.

Officials said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has evaluated referrals from several counties and approved specimens from two individuals in Washtenaw County and one in Macomb County for testing at the Centers for Disease Control. 

Results are expected back within several days. 

All cases being investigated here have been mild. These individuals are self-isolating and local health departments are closely monitoring anyone who has been in close contact with them, the department said. 

“We recognize the potential threat associated with this virus and are working to identify any suspect cases in Michigan,” said Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health for the state's Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement.

“Our goal is to quickly identify individuals with the virus and prevent any potential spread. We encourage healthcare providers to remain vigilant in screening patients for symptoms and travel history, and to contact their local health departments immediately if they see a potential case.”

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Novel coronavirus 2019 has been identified as the cause of a deadly outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. Investigations are ongoing to learn more, but person-to-person spread of the virus has occurred, according to the CDC. 

People with the disease have had mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough and shortness of breath.

All cases being investigated in Michigan have presented with mild illness, the Washtenaw County Health Department said in a statement Friday. 

"The individuals are currently isolated, pending test results," the department said. "In Washtenaw County, we are monitoring these individuals and any household contacts for fevers or additional symptoms twice per day."

Bill Ridella, director of the Macomb County Health Department, said the individual who is being examined in that county showed up to a local hospital, was tested and evaluated after recently traveling to Wuhan. 

"Specimen have been collected and sent to the CDC in Atlanta for further analysis," he said. "Meanwhile, the individual is going to be isolated in their residence and we will be monitoring daily through the health department. We do expect results early next week."

He added, "The word has gotten out across Michigan, and emergency rooms and hospitals are taking appropriate precautions."

Two confirmed cases have been diagnosed in the U.S. — one in a woman in her 60s in Chicago and one in a man in his 30s in Washington state, both of whom recently returned from the outbreak's epicenter in central China.

U.S. Border Patrol has added numerous airport screenings across the country in light of the outbreak, but Detroit Metro is not conducting any new procedures, spokesman Ken Hammond said Friday.

It is unclear how easily the virus is spreading between people. Chinese authorities have verified multiple generations of transmission, said Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

"This is worrisome as the easier it is for this virus to be transmitted, the harder it will be to control the outbreak," Gordon said in a statement.

"Initial reports suggest the severity of illness caused by this virus may not be as severe as SARS in 2002-03, however, it is still very early in the outbreak and the true extent of severity is not yet known," Gordon said." We do know that it's causing severe lower respiratory disease in more than 20% of detected cases to date. What we don't know is if there are many more mild cases that occurred at the same time and were not detected."

Arnold Monto, a UM professor of epidemiology who is an expert on transmission and prevention of outbreaks, said he believes quarantine is the quickest solution to curbing the virus.

"We know already, that just like SARS, hospital workers are more likely to get infected if they do not use heavy coverage, including covering their eyes," Monto said. "The sickest are the weakest.

"At this point, I don't think we need to change our behavior because everything domestic is linked to travel, but as things develop, that could change," he said.

Officials are asking anyone who has traveled to China in the past 14 days and has symptoms of respiratory illness to seek medical care by phoning health care providers before heading to hospitals or urgent care centers.