The first person to person transmission of coronavirus in the U.S. was identified in Chicago, the Centers for Disease Control said Thursday.
The new case occurred in the husband of a woman who was previously confirmed to have the novel coronavirus a week earlier. Both the husband and wife are in their 60s, and are currently in the hospital. The wife is “doing quite well, and remains in the hospital for isolation,” Illinois health officials said in a press briefing, while the husband is newly diagnosed and “stable.” He had underlying health conditions prior to contracting coronavirus.
While the wife had recently returned from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, the husband had not traveled, indicating that he contracted the virus from the wife. This is the sixth case of coronavirus in the U.S., and the first confirmed case since Sunday.
Just a few hours later, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency,” meaning they will help United Nations countries enact regulations, work together on vaccines and research and share resources.
“We don’t know what sort of damage this 2019-nCoV virus [the current term for this coronavirus] could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization during a press conference on Thursday.
During the CDC call, officials emphasized that the risk to the general public is still “low.”
“Despite the fact that we are reporting the first instance of person to person spread of this virus in the United States, it’s important to note that this spread is among people who were in close contact for an extended period of time. We’ve seen this in other countries with this new coronavirus,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control.
And CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said that given the wide spread of the disease in China, where there are now 8,100 confirmed cases and 171 deaths, and several person to person cases outside of the epicenter, they expected that there would be cases of person to person transmission in the U.S.
“Limited person to person spread of this new virus, outside of China, has already been seen in 9 close contacts, where travelers were infected and then transmitted the virus in a country where these individuals had not traveled to China,” he said. “We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now our assessment remains that the immediate risk to the American public is low.”
“However,” he continued, “the full picture of how easy and how sustainable this virus can spread is unclear. The vast majority of Americans have not had recent travel to china, the high-risk areas of transmission where sustained human to human transmission is occurring. Other individuals though, that are close personal contacts of confirmed cases, could have a risk.”
Messionnier said that they expect to see more cases, even as flights to and from China are being canceled, from person to person transmission.
“We’re trying to strike a balance in our response right now. We want to move forward and be aggressive, but we want our actions to be evidence-based and appropriate to the current circumstance,” she said.
The CDC has taken several steps to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. They’ve added “enhanced” health screenings at 20 international airports, and anyone coming from China is given a pamphlet on how to identify symptoms of coronavirus upon arrival in the U.S.
Messionnier said, though, that they do not recommend that Americans start wearing face masks as a form of protection. Concerns about coronavirus led several major retailers, including Amazon, to sell out of face masks.
“While it is cold and flu season, we don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks in the general public to prevent respiratory illness, and we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus,” she said.
Instead, Messionnier said that the best way for the American public to help is to “be vigilant about symptoms” if they or someone they are in close contact with has recently traveled to China. For everyone else, they should follow typically virus prevention practices.
“Our guidance is that at this time of year, the best things you can do are the things that we generally recommend at this time of year to prevent the spread of infectious diseases,” she said. “Wash your hands, cover your cough, take care of yourself, and keep alert to the information that we’re providing, because we’ll provide new information as it becomes available.”