February 7, 2020
For Immediate Release
Thomas Locke, MD, MPH, Jefferson County Health Officer
Jefferson County Public Health
360-385-9400 Main Clinic
Situation Report: On January 30, 2020 the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern regarding a growing outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus in China. The next day the U.S. Centers for Disease Control made a similar declaration. As of February 7, 2020, over 31,000 cases of this new viral infection have occurred worldwide with 638 deaths and documented cases in 28 countries. The first U.S. case was diagnosed on January 21, 2020 in Everett, Washington. Since then there have been an additional 11 cases detected in other U.S. cities. These statistics are changing on a daily basis and additional cases are to be expected worldwide.
What is a coronavirus? Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that affect many animal species. Several types of human coronaviruses are among the causes of “the common cold” and typically cause only mild to moderate illness. The newly discovered coronavirus, known as 2019 nCoV, appears to have originated in bats and began to infect humans in Wuhan City, China in late 2019. It is a close relative of the viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003 and rare but continuing cases of MERS in the Middle East. Much is yet to be learned about this new virus. At this point it appears to be more contagious but less severe than the 2003 SARS coronavirus, with most deaths occurring in the elderly and those with chronic heart and lung disease, similar to what occurs during seasonal influenza outbreaks.
Will 2019 nCoV cause a global pandemic? An unprecedented international effort is underway to contain this new virus and prevent a global spread. A massive isolation and quarantine effort is underway in China. Travel has been severely restricted and all travelers coming from the outbreak area are being strictly monitored and tested for the infection, when indicated. Travelers who are found to be infected with nCoV are kept in strict isolation until their infection resolves. If these efforts fail to contain this new infectious disease, global spread is possible. Even if this were to happen, the more it can be delayed, the more time will be available to develop vaccines and antiviral medications.
What is Washington State and Jefferson County doing to contain 2019 nCoV? Washington State is fortunate to have a high functioning public health system composed of a State Department of Health (DOH) and 35 county or multi-county Local Health Jurisdictions (LHJ). Jefferson County Public Health is one of these LHJs and has plans in place to deal with a wide range of communicable disease outbreaks such as measles and pandemic influenza. Washington DOH runs a state-of-the-art public health lab in Shoreline, WA and will soon have the capability to do instate testing for 2019 nCoV on a daily basis. Public health officials are in near continuous contact and coordinating their response plans carefully. While Washington State had the first detected case of nCoV in the U.S., prompt efforts to isolate, test, and treat this individual prevented any additional spread of the virus. Time-tested public health strategies of isolation and quarantine are highly effective for controlling infectious disease outbreaks when used properly. State and local health officers have the legal authority to compel individuals to follow isolation and quarantine orders but in almost all cases infected and exposed individuals voluntarily follow these recommendations, knowing this is the best way to protect their families and the community at large.
What can I do to protect myself and my family? 2019 nCoV appears to be spread in a manner very similar to influenza and common cold viruses – by respiratory secretions expelled during coughing and sneezing. People who are in close proximity to an infected individual can inhale these airborne particles and become infected. We know that influenza and many common cold viruses can also be spread when infectious particles settle on environmental surfaces, contaminate people’s hands and then are introduced into the body by touching the eyes, nose, or mouth. We do not yet know if this type of transmission is a significant risk for 2019 nCoV.
We do know that the standard “respiratory hygiene” measure that are used during seasonal influenza outbreaks – cover your cough, wash or disinfect your hands frequently, and avoid close contact with sick individuals – are highly effective for other types of respiratory viruses, including coronaviruses. At present, the only people at risk for nCoV are those who have recently travelled to China in the past 14 days or have had close contact with a known case of the infection. It is also important to actively manage fear and misinformation during public health emergencies. The fact that this new infection arose in central China has led to the stigmatization of Asian-Americans and foreign travelers. Conspiracy theories have already arisen on social media and will likely increase. Both of these responses impair our ability to control communicable diseases. Infectious diseases don’t care about race, ethnicity, national origin, or similar factors. They operate on a far more elemental level – if you are exposed and susceptible, you are at risk of the virus entering your body, replicating, causing illness, and potentially spreading to someone else. Biological science, not bigotry, is what controls communicable disease outbreaks.
Risk of significant outbreaks in the U.S. is very low at present but the situation is volatile, much is yet to be learned about 2019 nCoV, and it is important to stay informed about this emerging infectious disease. Fortunately, we have long known how to control infectious disease outbreaks, including influenza pandemics. To be successful, everyone must work together – health care workers, public health officials, community leaders, school officials, and all community members. Jefferson County has a long history of effective community health partnerships and close collaboration between public and private sector leaders. These partnerships will prove essential if we are called upon to respond to a global outbreak of a new infectious disease. As Jefferson County Health Officer, I am confident that we can rise to this challenge as a community.
Jefferson County Public Health
Always Working for a Safer and Healthier Community