coronavirus stock

Chinese family wearing face masks walk in a pedestrian crossing in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020.

Louisiana health officials are warning hospitals and the public to watch for signs of a dangerous new virus following its rapid and deadly outbreak in central China that recently reached the U.S and other countries.

The illness, known as novel coronavirus, is a respiratory affliction that in many ways mimics severe flu symptoms, such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath. It is from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.

The virus has rapidly spread from its epicenter in Wuhan, China, in recent weeks, leading to thousands of infections and 170 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease 

Louisiana health officials are warning hospitals and the public to watch for signs of a dangerous new virus following its rapid and deadly outbreak in central China that recently reached the U.S and other countries.

The illness, known as Novel Coronavirus, is a respiratory affliction that in many ways mimics severe flu symptoms, such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath. It is from the coronavirus family, which includes those that can cause the common cold as well as more serious illnesses such as SARS and MERS.

The virus has rapidly spread from its epicenter in Wuhan, China in recent weeks, leading to thousands of infections and dozens of deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday expressed serious concern about the latest global health threat after the illness surpassed the number of people sickened by SARS during the 2002 and 2003 outbreak and after the new virus' spread to other countries. The U.N. health agency’s director-general was reconvening a committee of experts on Thursday to assess whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.

To date, about 99% of the cases are in China. The WHO's Dr. Michael Ryan estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2% but said the figure was preliminary. With fluctuating numbers of cases and deaths, scientists are only able to produce a rough estimate of the fatality rate and it’s likely many milder cases of the virus are being missed. In comparison, the SARS virus killed about 10% of people who caught it.

Though the illness hasn’t been detected in Louisiana, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported five cases of coronavirus in Arizona, California, Illinois and Washington, as well as a few dozen false alarms in other areas. Still, public health officials in Louisiana say they’re prepared if someone tests positive for it.

"We have taken a lot of precautions to make sure that we effectively screen and find a very rare case of coronavirus were it to happen in Louisiana," said Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for community preparedness for the state.

The state Department of Health has instructed every doctor and hospital to ask patients experiencing flu-like symptoms if they recently traveled to China or have been around someone who was there in the past 14 days. Health officials believe the incubation period for the virus is two to 14 days.

Officials speculate coronavirus may have come from animals and began spreading from person-to-person. Though contagious, health officials believe it’s spread through very close contact and long exposure.

Despite its fast spread in Wuhan, a dense city with more than 11 million people, the chances of people being sickened in Louisiana at this point are low. The added measures come as Louisiana and much of the country are in the midst of the flu season, which may see a rise in testing and negative results in the coming weeks.

"The vast majority of people in Louisiana are at very little to no risk of getting coronavirus," Welch said. "Given it's flu season, it's much more likely the flu."

His agency does have plans in place if someone tests positive for coronavirus. Those plans involve placing the person in a quarantine area of a hospital. In that instance, doctors and nurses will also be given added protection to avoid contracting and spreading the disease.

Several universities, including LSU, have also issued advisories to students and faculty, echoing public health officials' suggestions to avoid non-essential travel to China.

LSU is also monitoring developments for planned study abroad trips scheduled for April, a school spokeswoman said.

The CDC has instructed air travelers to take precautions such as frequently washing their hands and covering coughs and sneezes.

Screenings for the illness were recently expanded to more than 20 U.S. airports. The screenings involve asking travelers from China if they're feeling sick and to call a 24-hour hotline if they experience flu-like symptoms later.

Airports in New Orleans and Baton Rouge will also roll out signs listing symptoms and precautionary steps to prevent getting sick. Neither airport has direct commercial flights to China, so travelers would be screened elsewhere when they first land in the U.S.

The World Health Organization reported the number of cases has now jumped to 7,711, surpassing the 5,327 people diagnosed in 2002 and 2003 with the viral infection known as SARS.

Researchers in several countries have been racing to develop a vaccine for the illness, as world health leaders continue to work to curb its spread.

The latest death toll from coronavirus stood at 170 people, according to world and U.S. health officials.

So far, the CDC has tested 165 U.S. patients for coronavirus, turning up 68 negative results, while more than 90 other cases remain pending.

Of the confirmed cases in the U.S., those people reported having mild symptoms.

"Several of the five people in the United States are just sitting in their hospital room playing video games until their fever goes away," Welch said.


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.