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Local officials watching for new coronavirus strain

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Jan 31, 2020 at 9:28 AM

Shortly after a new respiratory illness made its way to the United States from China, local health and education officials expressed some concerns the mysterious virus could eventually spread to Northeast Tennessee.

A month after a new coronavirus strain was first identified in China, airports across the globe have continued screening passengers arriving mainly from the world’s most populous country. China has quarantined more than 50 million people after more than 6,000 cases of the coronavirus resulted in more than 130 deaths.

The previously unidentified strain, novel coronavirus, is part of a large family of viruses ranging from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome.

“With this kind of virus, it is an emerging pathogen. That means it’s an organism that has never infected humans, and that’s why there’s a national concern. It’s just an organism that we don’t know a lot about yet,” Ballad Health Director of Infection Prevention Jamie Swift said, adding that health officials suspect that the virus originated in animals.

As of Wednesday, only a small handful of U.S. travelers returning from China have been confirmed to have the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is closely monitoring the disease. Officials are still uncertain of how contagious or lethal the virus can be, or whether it can be contained in China.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns since it’s a disease we’ve not dealt with before,” Swift said, adding that Ballad is following daily updates from the CDC and World Health Organization.

According to a data tracking map from John Hopkins University, there have been five confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. as of Wednesday.

Health officials elsewhere are hoping to prevent the person-to-person spread of the virus, which can cause severe respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, kidney failure and death.

On Monday, East Tennessee State University officials sent an email to students reminding them to wash their hands, avoid touching their eyes and refrain from close contact with those who are sick. ETSU students were also reminded to disinfect surfaces frequently and cover their coughs or sneezes with tissues.

The university urged students with symptoms to contact its University Health Center, especially if they’ve traveled abroad in the past few weeks.

“We have a number of ETSU students who are from China and may have traveled home during the past month. So we are sharing information with the university community for anyone who has questions or concerns,” ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said. “That’s where we are right now.”

Since some symptoms are similar to flu and other respiratory illnesses, Swift said learning about a patient’s travel history can help health care providers know when to suspect a coronavirus infection.

“We ask about your travel history, and travel history tells us a lot,” she said.

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