EVERETT — The first patient in North America known to be carrying a new Chinese coronavirus remained in isolation at a north Everett hospital Wednesday, in a room with a special air system separated from other patients.
The mysterious virus silently jumped across the Pacific Ocean last week, carried by the Snohomish County resident, a man in his 30s who took a trip to Wuhan, China.
As of Wednesday, investigators had identified at least 16 people who came in close contact with the man since his return, said Dr. Chris Spitters of the Snohomish Health District. That number could easily grow.
The potential contacts are not being asked to isolate themselves unless they feel symptoms, and so far no else in the state has been tested for the virus, health officials said at a press conference Wednesday.
At the time the man’s plane touched down, he felt and showed no sign— fever, cough, tightness in the chest — of what’s now being called Wuhan coronavirus, according to health officials. Meanwhile, newspapers around the globe were running headlines about the new pneumonia-like virus.
Seventeen people have died, all in Hubei province, while the number of cases has sharply risen above 500, officials said Wednesday. Authorities suspect the outbreak had an animal origin at a large seafood market. This week officials concluded the virus can also spread from person to person.
The Snohomish County man began to feel sick over the weekend. He went to a health clinic, and by Monday, tests confirmed he had the virus. Since then he has been isolated in a hospital room, in no apparent distress.
“The patient continues to do well clinically,” said Dr. Jay Cook, the chief medical officer at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. “The team that’s caring for him in the bio-containment unit, they are in great spirits. The first 24 hours, they were really busy, but it has settled down now.”
As recently as Jan. 2, the Everett hospital has hosted drills to practice how to set up a special room to stifle the spread of a virus.
“It’s like a hospital room,” Cook said. “It’s not stark. It’s not like a prison cell.”
The hospital unit was set up about five years ago. Cook said this is the first time the unit has been used in a real-life scenario.
“This goes back to the Ebola crisis,” Cook said. “We set up this bio-containment room and developed a whole process … We’ve continued to drill and practice.”
Hospital officials didn’t know when the man would be discharged.
“This is a brand new virus and nobody really knows much about it,” Cook said.
He wouldn’t say where the room is at the hospital. No visitors are allowed.
“It’s out of the main flow of patients,” Cook said. “The air flow is vented through special filters.”
What do staff wear?
“You’ve seen the pictures of the Ebola workers,” Cook said. “Yeah, well, that’s what it is.”
The Everett hospital’s Biocontainment Evaluation Specialty Team, or BEST, is tending to the patient. The group of nurses and caregivers volunteered to serve on the team, said Casey Calamusa, a Providence spokesman.
The patient is a Chinese immigrant who is a legal permanent resident of the United States, Gov. Jay Inslee said. On a trip to his home country, the man visited Wuhan, the provincial capital on the Chinese mainland that has become the epicenter for the virus. But the man told health officials he did not visit the market that’s linked to the outbreak, nor did he knowingly contact anybody that he believed was sick.
Investigators from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are assessing who came in contact with the man since he left China. An exact itinerary hasn’t been released, but the man made at least one flight connection before arriving at Sea-Tac Airport on Jan. 15. He rode in group transportation to his home, where he lives alone.
“In this case, we don’t believe even if we had active screening at the airport that this patient would have been picked up, because at the time we don’t believe the patient had any symptoms of the fever,” said John Wiesman, the Washington state secretary of health, on Tuesday.
Testing for the virus, known by the scientific name 2019-nCoV, can only be conducted in the United States by the CDC. In this case, the sample was collected Sunday and the results came back the following day.
Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, who monitors influenza for The Everett Clinic, praised the speed of the scientific work.
“This is a virus that was first identified a month ago,” Tu said. “There were three different groups who published the genetic code for this virus. The CDC, using that information, developed a DNA test all within the last two weeks. The first person in the United States is in Everett. Public health gets called and collects a sample and sends it to Atlanta, and in 24 hours they have positively identified this virus. That is amazingly fast science. It’s just ‘Star Wars.’”
Coronavirus is named for crown-like spikes on its surface under an electron microscope, like a halo around the sun. Other high-profile coronaviruses, like MERS or SARS, have proven more deadly than the common kind. The less-serious infections merely cause a mild runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat and fever, akin to the common cold. Scientists are still learning how lethal and contagious the new Chinese virus can be.
At highest risk is anyone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person, and especially those who have been exposed to that person’s coughing or infected droplets, state health officials said Wednesday.
As a matter of routine, staff at The Everett Clinic screen patients who report recent travel, and those with a fever or rash.
“We’ve been doing that since the measles outbreak last year,” Tu said. “We have it built into our check-in system.”
Tu said people in Snohomish County have a far greater risk of getting influenza than the coronavirus. At least three residents of the county have died of the flu this season, according to the Snohomish Health District. All had underlying health problems. Hundreds of others have fallen ill.
Meanwhile, in China, state media announced all flights departing Wuhan would be “temporarily” shut down Wednesday. Chinese authorities urged people in the city to avoid crowds and public gatherings, warning that the virus could spread further.
The appeal came as the World Health Organization convened a group of experts to advise whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.
To get help
A hotline has been set up for anyone in the Snohomish County area who believes they’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, or those who may have contacted the local patient. Call 425-388-5088 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.