Death toll mounts, thousands quarantined as global health officials work to combat coronavirus

Kevin Byrne

Nearly a week after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global public health emergency due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, the number of confirmed cases continued to climb.

The virus, which was first detected in the Chinese province of Hubei on Dec. 31, 2019, and has shut down the metropolis of Wuhan where more than 11 million reside, has infected over 24,000 in China, and killed 490 according to the country's National Health Commission.

According to The New York Times, the death toll from the current coronavirus outbreak exceeds that of the SARS outbreak, which killed 349 people in mainland China in 2002 and 2003.

People wear face masks and walk at a shopping mall in Taipei, Taiwan, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. People wear face masks as they walk through a shopping mall in Taipei, Taiwan, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. According to the Taiwan Centers of Disease Control (CDC) Friday, the tenth case diagnosed with the new coronavirus has been confirmed in Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

One point of optimism according to the Times is the number of patients who have been discharged from hospitals after recovering from an infection. Chinese officials said on Wednesday that a total of 892 people have been cured and discharged, which indicates treatments dispersed have been effective.

A new hospital that was constructed in only 10 days opened Monday in Wuhan, one of the latest drastic measures implemented to try to combat the growing health crisis. Over 1,400 medical staff from China's military have been assigned to treat patients at the 1,000-bed facility.

In addition to building new hospitals, the Chinese government's "unprecedented" response to battling the epidemic has included extending the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, postponing the opening dates for schools and businesses, and imposing travel restrictions.

Two deaths have been confirmed outside mainland China, including one this week in Hong Kong, The Associated Press reported. The other death was reported in the Philippines.

Despite the rapid climb in confirmed cases in China and the spread of the virus to over twenty other countries, the WHO says the coronavirus does not yet constitute a pandemic.

Dr. Sylvie Briand, the WHO's director of global infectious hazard preparedness said at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday that even though there is a rapid spread of transmission in Hubei, the cases outside the province are mainly "spillover" cases with sporadic clusters or transmission, according to a report from China's health commission.

"Countries are implementing early case detection, early isolation and treatment of patients, contact tracing to make sure they identify very early contacts that become symptomatic," she said.

Cruise ships have also come under close scrutiny during the outbreak.

Reuters reported that at least 3,700 passengers are facing two weeks in isolation on a ship anchored off the coast of Japan after 10 people tested positive for the virus.

Earlier this week, another 3,600 passengers and crew had to stay aboard their ship as it remained in port in Hong Kong after three people reportedly contracted the virus.

The World Dream cruise ship docked at Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. A Hong Kong official says more than 3,600 people on board the cruise ship that was turned away from a Taiwanese port will be quarantined until they are checked for a new virus. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said the number of confirmed cases in the United States has reached 11. Six of those have been reported in California. At least 25 other countries have reported cases.

NBC News reported Monday that the first patient confirmed to have coronavirus in the U.S. has been released from the hospital. The unidentified man had been treated at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, and is expected to be kept in isolation as he recovers.

Travel restrictions to and from China and enhanced airport screenings at five U.S. airports are two of the preventative methods U.S. officials have instituted based on the CDC's recommendation. More than 14,000 people traveled daily to the U.S. from China in 2019.

There is no current vaccine to utilize against the virus, but according to a report from the U.S. News and World Report, dozens of labs are said to be working on a vaccine to protect against the pathogen. Due to manufacturing and regulatory hurdles, it could be months or more than a year before a vaccine becomes commercially available, experts have said.

People wearing masks, play in a park in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

"Though we may be in clinical trials within a year, I do not expect a coronavirus vaccine to be commercially available within a year," Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told U.S. News and World Report.

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The spread of the virus initially was blamed on a link to a seafood and animal market in the Wuhan area, indicating an animal to person spread, according to CDC. Yet, in the ensuing weeks, officials believe that a person-to-person spread is occurring, including two such cases in the U.S.

"At this time, it's unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people," CDC officials said.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath and may appear as soon as two days or as long as 14 after exposure. More severe cases can produce pneumonia, kidney failure or death.

The fact that it's winter in Wuhan when people tend to spend more time indoors versus outside, could be a significant factor in the spread of the virus, Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York, told AccuWeather.

"If people are in a small, poorly ventilated area, the spread of any virus, especially a virus like this would be much more likely to spread," Glatt said. "As opposed to if people are playing outside, it's less likely they spend a significant amount of time next to somebody in a highly contagious area."

Glatt said if an effective vaccine could be developed in a short amount of time, that would be a "game-changer." He also explained that this strain of coronavirus spreads in similar ways to the common cold or flu but there is much health experts still don't know about this virus.

"We're not 100 percent certain how close you have to be to somebody to get this virus. We're certain that if you're within 6 feet of them for some sort of a prolonged period of time, that would put a person at risk," Glatt continued. "We're not sure if there's a greater distance that would also put a person at risk. And we're not sure exactly how long a period of time you need to be exposed to somebody."

If a patient is known to have the virus, the individual should cover the mouth with a mask. Doing so should be a number one priority, he added.

China's air quality issues could also play a factor in whether or not a person is more or less vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Dr. Bryan Lewis, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's Biocomplexity Institutive and Initiative, said those with lung damage that could be caused by air pollution could have a higher susceptibility to becoming infected.

"It certainly could stand to reason that in some of those urban areas in China where the air quality is an issue, that the population might be more susceptible to this kind of infection," he told AccuWeather.

Despite fears about the spread of coronavirus, health experts like Glatt continue to stress that influenza, which has killed more than 10,000 so far this flu season in the U.S. remains the bigger threat.

"There's a tremendous amount of attention on coronavirus but there's not enough attention on influenza and how we can prevent the flu with a good vaccine, albeit not a perfect one, and how we can stay home if we get the flu and not infect all of our colleagues, co-workers and other people we come into contact with," Glatt said.

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