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NYC health officials on high alert as deadly Coronavirus spreads around globe

January 23, 2020 Mary Frost
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Wash your hands “a little obsessive compulsively” if you want to reduce your chances of catching a new, rapidly spreading and potentially deadly virus, says Dr. Jorge Mercado, director of the pulmonary medicine section of NYU Langone Hospital — Brooklyn.

First detected just last month in Wuhan, China, the previously unknown 2019-nCoV — or “novel Coronavirus” — has now been detected in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The first case in the United States was confirmed Tuesday in Seattle, Washington.

China said that it is shutting down all public transportation to and from Wuhan starting Thursday morning, according to China Daily, the official state media outlet.

Currently the Centers for Disease Control is checking travelers from China for fever and other symptoms at JFK airport in New York City, as well as at airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Some people, however, may be carrying the virus but not yet show symptoms, Dr. Mercado told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Brooklyn neighborhoods like Sunset Park have a high Chinese population. “We do have a large Chinese community where my office is. With Chinese New Year coming up, we’ll see increased traffic from all over the world,” Mercado said. “This is a historically high travel time in China.”

The New York City Department of Health said it is working with state and federal agencies in a coordinated response.

“CDC and WHO are learning more about this new Coronavirus every day,” Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said in a release Wednesday. “At this time, the actual risk to New Yorkers is low, but our level of preparedness is high and we are monitoring the situation daily to determine if our plans to protect New Yorkers need to be adjusted accordingly.”

NYC Health + Hospitals is distributing clinical information about the virus to public hospitals and providing training on “donning and doffing” personal protective gear. The public hospital system has also started putting travel records into the electronic health record system so any patient walking into any public facility can be identified and isolated.

At NYU Langone, “We have a high alert,” Mercado said.

The virus spreads through bodily secretions — coughing, sneezing or touching a secretion left on a door knob, subway pole or elsewhere could transmit the virus. That’s why washing hands is so important, Mercado said.

Wearing a face mask may offer some protection, but it has to be rated at least N95 — a rating that indicates the mask is designed to remove 95 percent of particulates from inhaled air — and even then there’s no guarantee. Most of the flimsy masks being worn in Asia, as pictured in recent news photos, are “not helpful, almost like a placebo,” according to Mercado.

Still, if you are around people who are coughing or your immune system is low, “you might want to try it,” he said. “The CDC doesn’t suggest one thing or another.”

As of noon on Wednesday, the virus has been detected in 440 people and it has killed 17, but these figures are very preliminary. Coronavirus can mutate and is easily transmissible, alarming the World Health Organization and the CDC.

The virus causes a form of pneumonia. Unfortunately, with a bad influenza season already underway, the initial symptoms of the novel Coronavirus can be confused with the flu.

The symptoms are “fever, chills and a productive cough, the same as influenza,” Mercado said. He went on to say that the CDC protocol for diagnosing the virus is “if someone has viral symptoms, plus contact with someone from Wuhan, or any contact with health providers or researchers in contact with Coronavirus.”

So be very aware if you are around someone who recently returned from China, especially if they are sick, he said.

It still pays to get a flu shot, Mercado said, because having the flu increases the odds that the Coronavirus will have a more serious effect on your immune system.

The virus is related to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), responsible for a pandemic that killed at least 800 people around the world. Like SARS, Coronaviruses are “zoonotic,” meaning they are transmitted between animals and people.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday formed an emergency committee with members representing countries around the globe, including the U.S., to determine whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, and what recommendations should be made to manage it.

For more information, visit the CDC website.

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