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California health authorities eye coronavirus threat

A passenger aboard a Princess Cruise ship in San Pedro harbor in Los Angeles. (Photo: Mary T-Comms, via Shutterstock

California public health officials are doing their best to calm fears about COVID-19, the disease causing the global outbreak of coronavirus.

There have been 15 confirmed cases of the disease in the state as of Feb. 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a figure that includes five cases linked to a cruise ship. However, the health risk to the general public here remains low, the California Department of Public Health reported. 

Dr. Sara Cody, the director of public health in Santa Clara County, which has two of the cases, said her department has added extra staff to deal with the issue.

There have been about 81,000 confirmed coronavirus cases around the world and nearly 2,800 deaths, but the vast majority are in mainland China.

“The level of concern in the community was so high and the volume of calls was such that we couldn’t manage it with our usual level of staffing,” she said in a recent KCBS radio interview posted on the public health department’s Facebook page.  Cody said she is now overseeing a “seven-day-a-week operation.”

The state public health department considers the illness a “serious health concern” and is screening travelers for possible exposure at airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco and advising local public health officials how to evaluate sick people who have been to China, where the outbreak started.

There have been about 81,000 confirmed coronavirus cases around the world and nearly 2,800 deaths, but the vast majority are in mainland China. The first reported case was in Wuhan on Dec. 31.

Coronaviruses refer to a large group of viruses that are found among animals and humans. Some coronaviruses are associated with the common cold. COVID-19 is distinctive because it has not previously been found in animals and humans and the source is unknown, according to the California Department of Public Health website.

COVID-19 is worrisome because so little is known about it, said Dr. Charles Chiu, professor of laboratory medicine and infectious diseases at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School, in the same interview. Public health officials don’t know yet how transmissible it is, how deadly, how severe an illness it may cause.t

The state public health department announced that the state’s Viral and Rickettsial Disease Laboratory in Richmond is able to test for the novel coronavirus.

Symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to the flu, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. According to the state public health department website, most people with common coronavirus infections recover on their own. There is no specific treatment.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is reminiscent of the 2003 spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which is also in the family of coronaviruses and also started in China and spread to California.

So far, it appears it is more infectious than SARS but less deadly, Chiu said. At the same time, it appears more deadly than influenza. “It appears to be intermediate in its severity of disease between the seasonal influenza we experience every year and SARS,” he said.

To speed up testing for the virus, the state public health department announced that the state’s Viral and Rickettsial Disease Laboratory in Richmond is able to test for the novel coronavirus. It takes two to seven days for results to be available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Richmond lab expects results to be available within two days of receipt of the specimen.

“Someone who has a cough or a fever does not necessarily have coronavirus.” — Janet Napolitano

Meanwhile, University of California President Janet Napolitano, director of all UC campuses, has banned students, faculty and staff from all non-essential travel to China, following the USA State Department’s advisory to Americans not to go to the country.  UCLA suspended all study abroad programs for spring 2020.

“We also take this opportunity to remind you that, while the vast majority of the infections have occurred in Wuhan, China, we must not stigmatize anyone in our community based on national origin,” said an update from the UCLA Newsroom. “Someone who has a cough or a fever does not necessarily have coronavirus.”

Giving similar advice to that doled out by public health agencies throughout the state, UCLA advised students and staff to remain at home or avoid crowds if they are ill, regularly and thorough wash hands with soap and water and cough and sneeze into their sleeve.

Chiu said scientific journals are trying to fast track publication of any research that does give more information about the coronavirus. Public health officials will share it as they learn it. “What’s different about this virus is we’re learning as we go and we don’t have all of our tools developed yet,” Cody said.


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