A potentially deadly virus shows up in Chicago — let’s keep an eye on it

At this point, though, Americans should be far more concerned about the flu, which is to blame for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world each year, including up to 61,000 in the United States.

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Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters Friday about a patient in Chicago who has been diagnosed with the Coronavirus.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

A new coronavirus strain is making headlines, and one case was confirmed in Chicago on Friday.

Should we panic, fellow Chicagoans, if even just a little?

Let’s not.

Yes, it is worrisome that no vaccine has been developed for the coronavirus, which has been blamed for 56 deaths in China so far. But so little is really known. There’s not even enough data yet to know whether the virus, which has shut down travel in Chinese cities, has a high or low mortality rate or is easily transmitted.

At this point, Americans should be far more concerned about the flu, which is to blame for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world each year, including up to 61,000 in the United States. Anybody who hasn’t gotten a flu shot this season should worry about that.

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One Chicago case

At a press conference on Friday, officials confirmed that a 60-year-old woman who had recently returned from a trip to China is the first Chicago area person known to have contracted the coronavirus, which scientists call 2019-nCoV. But Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, talking common sense, stressed there is no need for people to change their behavior at this point.

We’ve seen this before.

In 2014, when an Ebola victim stepped on U.S. soil for the first time, 40 percent of Americans were convinced that a “large” Ebola epidemic was headed our way. There was a lot of talk about whether hospitals could contain the spread. Remember that?

An Ebola outbreak never happened in the United States.


What is the disease?

Scientists have identified it as a new kind of coronavirus. There are many known types of coronaviruses. Some cause the common cold. Others found in bats, camels and other animals have evolved into more severe illnesses such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever. Shortness of breath, chills and body aches are associated with more dangerous kinds of coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At what point should you go to the doctor?

Unless you have recently traveled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. There is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.

How are coronaviruses spread?

Many coronaviruses can spread through coughing or sneezing, or by touching an infected person. Initially, authorities in China said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission in the present outbreak. But an expert panel has concluded there have been at least a few cases of people catching it from others, raising the possibility it could spread more widely.

— Associated Press, The Guardian

A wake-up call

This is not to dismiss the gravity of the threat. No one is sure where the coronavirus outbreak is headed or how quickly a vaccine can be developed. In the past, some coronaviruses have evolved into more severe illnesses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Be on the alert for symptoms such as a shortness of breath, chills and body aches.

What we know for sure is that the new coronavirus, which originated in animals, is a public health wake-up for the United States, which has let cracks develop in its front-line defenses against outbreaks of disease. 

Last year, the federal government began shutting down Predict, a program run by the United States Agency for International Development to look for dangerous animal viruses that might infect humans. The Prevention and Public Health Fund, which supports state and local health agencies, has had its funding cut over and over again in recent years.

In 2018, the Trump administration cut millions of dollars from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also in 2018, the administration abolished the permanent office on pandemic preparedness and response.

Moreover, Congress did not include funding in its 2020 budget for a program that prepares hospitals to deal with pandemics caused by so-called special pathogens.

In China, hospitals are crowded, doctors are stressed and health care workers are running out of supplies. China says the number of cases has increased to 1,975 with the death toll at 56. The nation has locked down travel in 12 cities near the center of the outbreak, preventing the movement of 35 million people. But health officials need more tools than quarantines to prevent pandemics caused by new viruses or antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Now that the World Health Organization has started tracking the coronavirus outbreak and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has said the risk of global spread is likely, the United States must gear up its defenses against new viruses and remain in a state of alert.

No ‘emergency’ yet

In Washington on Friday, some two dozen senators attended a special briefing with top health officials about the outbreak. One, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., came away calling on President Trump to declare a public health emergency.

You wouldn’t want to go with Sen. Scott on that. He’s no scientist.

But our nation does need a planned and measured response to the new coronavirus. And it needs to shore up its defenses against other disease outbreaks sure to come down the road.

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