Monday, February 17, 2020
Feb. 17, 2020

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In Our View: Arrival of new virus in U.S. no reason for panic

The Columbian
Published:

While all of the pundits and politicians are near a perfect frenzy over impeachment, next week’s topic for endless pontificating already has landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A 30-something man from Snohomish County is the United States’ first confirmed case of a new disease.

The virus is apparently a new member of a long-established family called coronaviruses. You may have had one at some point in your life, as they are commonly self-diagnosed as a cold. But they can be more serious too, and cause severe health complications or even death. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is a coronavirus, as is MERS, or Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome.

The latest mutation seems to fall more in between a cold and SARS in terms of its lethality. Symptoms include coughing, fever, breathing difficulty and pneumonia, according to the Associated Press. The Chinese government says it is different than any coronaviruses identified in the past. As a novel virus, there is a chance it could mutate and become more serious.

The first cases were reported last month in the Wuhan province of central China. It may have started in a food market there and spread from an animal to a human, then spread among humans. Since it was identified, more than 500 people have been infected, and at least 17 have died.

The Snohomish County man had visited Wuhan and landed at Sea-Tac Jan. 15. He contacted doctors on Sunday when he started feeling ill, and was taken to an Everett hospital, where the virus was confirmed Monday through lab tests. As of Tuesday, he was reportedly “very healthy,” but expected to remain in the hospital for monitoring until at least today.

Understandably, world health authorities are on alert. This is a peak time for Chinese to travel, as many vacations are scheduled around Lunar New Year. Airports around the world have increased monitoring of international travelers. In the United States, passengers inbound from Wuhan will be forced to arrive at one of five large international airports, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. Those five airports will be set up to screen passengers for the new virus.

In addition, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending a team to the Seattle area to try to locate what they believe to be a handful of people the man may have exposed to the virus, and provide treatment as needed.

David Veesler, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Washington, said the public “should not be panicking right now,” and U.S. health officials said the virus poses a low risk to the American public.

That may not stop the political and media frenzy from feeding on it as the Trump impeachment story winds down to its preordained conclusion. By Wednesday morning at least one Portland TV station was “bringing you the latest live” every half-hour from Portland International Airport, where, in fact, there are no passenger flights to or from China. If the pattern seen during Ebola outbreaks in Africa holds true, the general public should be thoroughly overanxious by this time next week. That, in turn, will likely fuel a round of xenophobia and distrust of all things Chinese that will be at least as destructive as the new coronavirus itself.

What the story is really about is how closely our world is connected by modern air transport and our global economy. A disease that started in a Chinese market only a month ago has put a man in a hospital in Everett! So, please, wonder about our world, realize how we are all connected, and most of all, don’t forget to wash your hands.

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