A South Korean quarantine officer check passengers from a flight from Wuhan, China at Incheon International Airport. (Getty Images)
by Michael P. Norton, State House News Service
BOSTON (State House News Service) — Passengers aboard a flight arriving from China were screened at Boston's airport Wednesday night as health officials around the world work to contain an outbreak of a new strain of a disease that's sickened hundreds and killed more than a dozen people in China.
The Mass. Department of Public Health said the risk to Massachusetts residents from the new form of coronavirus is "currently low," but also advised that residents "should continue taking precautions to avoid illness, including urging people with flu-like illnesses to stay home, washing hands, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and covering coughs." DPH said it is working with the CDC "to understand and monitor" the outbreak.
This specific coronavirus is a respiratory sickness caused by a new virus first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, and which has been spreading in recent weeks. The disease has already killed 17 people in China, and has been confirmed in hundreds more patients. Cases have also been reported in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
One case has been reported in America -- in Washington state -- and the CDC said passengers from China will be screened at several U.S. airports. On Wednesday night, a flight from China was greeted at Boston Logan International Airport by additional health screening for passengers.
"Out of an abundance of caution, Massport Fire Rescue, in coordination with local and federal partners, did additional screening for a number of passengers on the arriving Cathay Pacific flight. None had any symptoms and continued on their trip," a Massachusetts Port Authority spokeswoman said of a flight reportedly arriving from Hong Kong.
DPH said that airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City are already screening passengers on direct or connecting flights from the Wuhan area and that airports in Atlanta and Chicago will follow suit shortly. By this weekend, federal authorities plan to route all air passengers from Wuhan to one of the five airports where enhanced health screenings are in place, DPH said.
Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious disease at South Shore Hospital, said the public "shouldn't be alarmed yet" about the outbreak, but that public health officials need to "stay on top of this because it's a unique virus."
"This isn't just a run-of-the-mill, everyday coronavirus. This is a novel type that has mutated and definitely is more severe than the run-of-the-mill coronavirus, which just causes the common cold," he said in a video the hospital posted to Twitter.
Ellerin said "we want to have our guards up and we want to make sure we're ready to accept a patient that may have symptoms of this" because of the recent reports of the virus being transmitted from human to human.
Early identification of symptoms, isolation of patients who present with possible coronavirus cases, ensuring that hospitals have the right personal protective gear for nurses and doctors, and clear lines of communication with public health officials will be essential if the outbreak continues to spread and arrives in Massachusetts.
In a memo sent to health care providers Wednesday, the Department of Public Health advised that any patients who report recent travel to Wuhan and report fever, lower respiratory tract symptoms (such as shortness of breath and cough), and/or contact with a known coronavirus patient "should be asked to wear a surgical mask and be evaluated in a private room with the door closed, ideally an airborne infection isolation room if available."