CDC confirms first human-to-human transmission of coronavirus in the U.S.

As cases of the novel coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV continue to increase — topping 7,700 globally on Thursday — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a sixth case in the U.S. Unlike the five previous cases — which were contracted abroad — officials say this infection was spread through person-to-person contact on U.S. soil.

Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the CDC’s national center for immunization and respiratory diseases, said Thursday in a press call that the case centers on a married couple in Chicago. The woman, described as being in her 60s, tested positive for coronavirus after returning from a trip to Wuhan, China in mid-January. As she was being treated in the hospital, her husband, who had been in close contact with her physically, tested positive for the virus as well.

Although the news may be alarming, Messonnier stresses that it’s not a reason to panic.

“Despite the fact that we are reporting the first instance of person-to-person contact [in the U.S.], it’s important to note that this spread was among two people who were in close contact for an extended period of time,” said Messonnier. “I understand why this may cause people to be worried about how this may affect them. This is a very serious health situation... moving forward we can expect to see more cases.”

CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, added that experts had suspected that the novel coronavirus would likely spread via human-to-human contact.

“Given what we’ve seen in China and other countries with the novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected some person-to-person spread in the US,” Redfield said in a statement. “We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low.”

The CDC confirmed its first stateside case of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus on Thursday, which involves a husband and wife in Illinois. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
The CDC confirmed its first U.S. case of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus on Thursday, which involves a husband and wife in Chicago. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Illinois health officials on the press call also provided an update on the two patients in Chicago, saying that the first patient is doing “quite well” and the second patient is “stable.” Messonnier added that, as of now, only those who recently traveled to Wuhan, China — or are in close contact with someone who did — should be concerned. The main symptoms to look out for are fever, cough and shortness of breath. While the CDC said that face masks can be effective, they stressed that the best way to stay safe is to wash your hands.

As the CDC works to investigate the first case of human-to-human transmission, the World Health Organization (WHO) is convening for the third time to debate whether the outbreak now constitutes a Global Health Emergency or, as its officially known, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). In a press conference earlier in the week, WHO leadership said that the organization has become increasingly vigilant as the cases in China continue their rapid spread.

“These developments, in terms of the evolution of the outbreak and further development of transmission, these are of grave concern and has spurred countries into action,” Mike Ryan, PhD, executive director of the WHO’s health emergency program, said, according to CNBC.

But in the U.S., officials continue to assert that the risk to Americans overall remains low. "This is a very fast-moving and constantly changing situation," Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told reporters Tuesday. "But at this point, Americans should not worry for their own safety."

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