New viral threat rears head

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The Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. is currently monitoring a new coronavirus that has been reported in China and Japan and could possibly pose a threat to the Marianas if precautionary measures are not undertaken now.

Latest reports say that 17 more people in central China have been diagnosed with the new form of viral pneumonia. In total, 62 cases of the novel coronavirus have been identified in the city of Wuhan, where the virus appears to have originated. 

At least a half-dozen countries in Asia and three U.S. airports have started screening incoming airline passengers from central China. The list includes Thailand and Japan, which have together reported three cases of the disease in people who had come from Wuhan.

According to a CHCC statement, it has been monitoring the outbreak of the mystery illness in Wuhan since last week, reportedly caused by a new type of coronavirus.

Given the high number of Chinese tourists who visit the CNMI, there is risk of an imported case but CHCC continues to monitor the situation closely and keep the public informed if there is an elevated threat level in the CNMI, the statement added.

Ongoing airport and port surveillance and passenger screening facilitated by the CHCC in collaboration with the Public Health Emergency Preparedness program, or PHEP, has been expanded to monitor potential import cases of the new disease.

CHCC spokesperson Zoe Travis told Saipan Tribune that PHEP is working with the CNMI Customs and Quarantine Office in screening incoming passengers from Asia, Guam, and other Micronesian islands for any ongoing infectious disease outbreaks, including the newly surfaced coronavirus.

“Questions to ask passengers have been provided to Customs and Quarantine officials, and an in-service for the questionnaire was conducted with all Customs and Quarantine officials by PHEP staff.

“If an incoming passenger is showing symptoms associated with certain infectious diseases, they are asked to provide some background information on their recent travels and may be referred to the CHCC for further evaluation and treatment if necessary. PHEP staff will also follow up and investigate further if needed,” said Travis.

The last time the CNMI was faced with a similar viral threat from passengers was the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002-2003, which precipitated a drastic drop in tourism numbers.

This latest case comes as China, Korea, and other Asian countries head into the Lunar New Year, typically a time when many people travel for the long holiday.

Three U.S. airports will screen passengers arriving from central China. Officials estimate roughly 5,000 passengers will go through the process in the next couple of weeks at New York City’s Kennedy airport and the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials say they will begin taking temperatures and asking about symptoms of passengers at three U.S. airports who traveled from the outbreak city of Wuhan.

There have been 62 confirmed cases in China of the illness caused by the new coronavirus and one death in a patient who had significant underlying medical conditions. No additional cases in China have been detected since Jan. 3 but as of Jan. 16, two export cases of the disease have been confirmed in people who had recently traveled from Wuhan to Japan and Thailand.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people—or human coronaviruses—and others that affect animals—or animal coronaviruses.

It is very rare for animal coronaviruses to evolve and infect people but sometimes, they can also spread between people, although it is not confirmed yet whether the virus in China can be transmitted from person to person.

Most of the patients in the outbreak in Wuhan have had some link to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting that animals may be the source of this illness.

Symptoms of human coronaviruses are similar to common colds and are usually mild or moderate. Most people get infected with these viruses at some point in their lives, and these illnesses usually only last for a short amount of time. Symptoms may include a runny nose, headache, coughing, sore throat, fever, and a general feeling of being unwell

More severe human coronaviruses can cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses like pneumonia or bronchitis. This is more common in high-risk groups, such as people with weakened immune systems, babies, and older adults. (With AP)

Kimberly Bautista | Reporter
Kimberly Albiso Bautista has covered a wide range of news beats, including the community, housing, crime, and more. She now covers sports for the Saipan Tribune. Contact her at kimberly_bautista@saipantribune.com.
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