A Maricopa County resident who recently returned from Wuhan, China, is one of five confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in the U.S., where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday it is tracking 110 potential cases across 26 states.

The Arizona patient was identified as a member of the Arizona State University community who lives in Tempe but does not live in university housing, according to statements from ASU and the state and county health departments. Officials did not say whether the person is a student or employee.

In a statement to students and staff members, ASU Provost Mark Searle said Maricopa County and ASU health officials were working to identify anyone who may have come in close contact with the patient while he or she was infectious. Those individuals will be contacted directly and monitored for symptoms.

“We have received many inquiries about university operations in light of this case,” Searle said. “The university remains open and classes are not canceled.”

At ASU’s downtown Phoenix campus, some expressed concern in the wake of the news.

“I’m nervous because there’s no cure for the virus, and since it’s such a new virus, they don’t understand its effects,” said student Rehat Sekhon. “It’s scary how many people in China have already died and how it spread so rapidly around the globe.”

Maricopa County Department of Public Health officials said the number of potentially ill people under investigation in Arizona is a moving target that changes by the hour.

As of Monday, CDC officials reported they had 110 “persons under investigation” across the U.S. for possible exposure to the virus.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said potential cases currently fall into two categories – people experiencing a fever or respiratory illness who have either recently traveled from Wuhan, or have come into direct contact with a confirmed case of the virus.

Although reports say Chinese officials claim the virus is contagious during its incubation period, Messonnier said the CDC has no clear evidence that people are contagious before symptoms arise. She said the current known incubation period of the virus is two to 14 days.

“Risk depends on exposure. … At this time in the U.S., this virus is not spreading in the community,” Messonnier said. “We continue to believe that the immediate health risk to the American public is low.”

The basic reproduction number for novel coronavirus – a number that determines how many infections each existing infection causes – is 1.5 to 3, Messonnier said. By comparison, the number for measles is 12 to 18. A disease is considered under control once the number falls below 1.

Of the 110 potential cases in the U.S., Messonnier said, tests on five came back positive and 32 were negative; results from the other 73 are pending. The five confirmed cases in the U.S. were in Arizona, Illinois, Washington and California, which had two cases.

The disease has been confirmed in 15 other countries, but the vast majority are in China, where more than 2,700 cases have been confirmed and 81 people have died. Confirmed cases in other countries all are in single digits.

The virus can survive only a matter of hours on surfaces, Messonnier said, so there is an extremely low risk – if any – of contamination on products or packaging shipped from China over the course of days or weeks in ambient temperatures.

Direct flights from Wuhan have been stopped, but the CDC is actively screening passengers from Wuhan at five U.S. airports – Los Angeles International, San Francisco International, John F. Kennedy International in New York, O’Hare International in Chicago and Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta – to identify ill passengers and educate travelers about the new virus and what to do if they begin to experience symptoms.

Messonnier said the CDC is considering broadening the screening and about 2,400 people have been screened at airports so far, adding that the CDC is expecting to release new travel recommendations in coming days.
The CDC also is working on providing test kits to states and international partners within the next few weeks, she said.

In the meantime, health officials are urging people to take common-sense precautions: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; stay home from school or work when sick and avoid close contact with people who are ill; cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and immediately discard the tissue; and clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

At ASU, Sekhon is taking heed.

“I’m really paying attention to my surroundings and making sure that I’m washing my hands and making sure that germs don’t spread,” she said. “I haven’t started wearing the mask like I’ve seen other people yet because I don’t think it’s hit that point.”

Despite the ban on air travel from Wuhan, the CDC is urging those who have traveled anywhere in east-central China’s Hubei province to contact their health care providers for testing if they experience fevers or respiratory illnesses.

Resources in Arizona include: ASU Health Services and the Maricopa County Health Department.


Story by MacKinley Lutes-Adlhoch and Gabrielle Zabat, Cronkite News