O’Hare to begin screening for mysterious coronavirus after 1st case reported in U.S.
One local expert said “the U.S. is totally unprepared for handling this epidemic.”
As federal authorities confirmed Tuesday the first case on U.S. soil of a deadly new virus that arose in the so-called “Chicago of China,” city and state officials are preparing to do their part in preventing a potential epidemic that one local expert says the country is completely unprepared to handle.
The virus — part of the coronavirus family, which includes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS — broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last month. Since then, the virus — which can cause coughing, fever, breathing difficulty and pneumonia — has infected 440 people and killed nine, according to Chinese officials.
On Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a man in his 30s from Washington state contracted the disease after traveling to Wuhan earlier this month. He is now in isolation at a hospital near Seattle.
The infected man came into the country before U.S. health officials began screening passengers from Wuhan at major international airports. As of Tuesday, all passengers coming to the U.S. from the city will be diverted to five airports, including O’Hare, where they will be screened for any symptoms.
“If they have travel that originated in Wuhan and there’s any concern that they have a cough or a fever, even a low amount of suspicion, we would divert them from their travel and they would be transported securely — not through the general airport — to a hospital,” Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said at a press conference Tuesday evening.
Arwady said a few hundred people a month arrive at O’Hare from Wuhan on average. That could change, though, as all Wuhan travelers will pass through the five designated airports.
“It’s really, at this point, affecting a very small group of arriving international travelers,” Arwady said. “But it’s in the best interest of everybody to make sure that we’re proactively identifying those travelers, making sure they have the information in case they were to become ill, and ... doing everything appropriately to get them into the care that they need and limiting the risk of any further spread.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health said in a statement Tuesday it is working with the city and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “monitor any cases.” So far, “the risk to the general public is low,” the state agency said.
U.S. ‘totally unprepared’: expert
Still, the U.S. is the fifth country to report seeing the illness — following China, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea — and one local expert is sounding the alarm over the disease’s potential to wreak havoc here.
“This is going to be a really big disaster,” Northwestern University infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Murphy said in a written statement. “Basically, this is the next SARS and there is no treatment. It isn’t routinely diagnosed, it can be transmitted person to person and it can kill you.”
SARS, which also originated in China, infected more than 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 people from 2002-04, according to the World Health Organization.
“It would not surprise me if the same happens here,” Murphy said.
He added: “The U.S. is totally unprepared for handling this epidemic.”
Local groups on guard
Some community groups and health organizations that serve the large Asian community in Chicago are heeding those warnings.
Amy Wong, manager of community and family well-being at the Chinese American Service League, said she is “fairly concerned” about the virus but is confident community outreach efforts will succeed.
“We do a lot of disease prevention and universal precautions trainings all the time, regardless of what the current issue is,” she said.
David Wu, executive director of Pui Tak Center, a church-based community center in Chinatown, said concerns over the virus are so far tepid but he expects more people to start asking questions in the coming days.
”People do travel back and forth between Chinatown and China quite often especially during this period because of Chinese New Year, and so that’ll start raising some concerns,” he said.
The city of Wuhan is home to more than 11 million people and has in the past been referred to as the “Chicago of China” because of its standing as a transportation hub.
But Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said there isn’t “a large community from Wuhan in Chicago.”
Still, “folks are concerned,” she said, “and our member organizations are letting everyone know to be more cautious.”
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.