The Monroe County public health department’s emergency preparedness team met for a special session Friday afternoon to plan for the potential arrival of novel coronavirus in upstate New York.
The virus has been spreading rapidly in central China, and the first case in the U.S. was confirmed in the Seattle area on Tuesday. It causes fever and respiratory symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath. Severe cases result in life-threatening pneumonia. About 3% of people who have been confirmed to be infected with the virus have died from it, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The New York state health department said Friday that four people in the state are under investigation for potential coronavirus infection. The department wouldn’t say where the patients were located, but did say that they are “under isolation as their cases are being tested” at the federal Centers for Disease Control.
“We've practiced situations like this,” said Monroe County public health commissioner Michael Mendoza. “But what we're dealing with right now is a virus that we still don't know very much about.”
The CDC hasn’t pinned down many details on the new virus, finding that symptoms “may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 after exposure.”
Mendoza said that makes planning an emergency response difficult.
“We don’t yet know how long it takes between when somebody catches the virus, so to speak, and when they become symptomatic. We don’t yet know the period of infectiousness, so how many days before they have symptoms and how many days after are they still contagious?”
But he said even without those details, local health authorities need a plan.
“This is moving quickly,” Mendoza said. “We’re in touch with the University of Rochester, which has a significant number of international students, many from the affected area in China.”
In a memo circulated among university leadership Friday, provost Rob Clark said the level of concern about the virus “especially among our Chinese students – seems to be rising.”
“University Health Service, working with infectious disease experts at the medical center, are screening all students who could have potentially been exposed to the virus,” Clark said in the memo. “The screenings have not raised concerns that novel coronavirus is present on campus.”
The memo said the risk of infection in upstate New York remains low.
Mendoza said the public health department has “already taken a number of calls over the last couple of days” from people worried about potential cases of the virus locally.
He said public health department staff have walked through the virus’s symptoms with callers, and they have not found any concerning cases.
It’s much more likely that cases of respiratory illness in upstate New York are flu or common cold, Mendoza said.
“Let’s put this in perspective. Influenza is here, and the common cold is definitely here. The rule we have in medicine is, if you hear hoofbeats, don’t think zebra. Flu and common cold are far more prevalent.”