A person in Washington State is infected with the Wuhan coronavirus, the first confirmed case in the United States of a mysterious respiratory infection that has killed at least six people and sickened hundreds more in Asia.
The patient, who was hospitalized with pneumonia last week, recently had traveled to Wuhan, China, where the outbreak appears to have originated, federal officials have found.
Investigators tested samples from the patient for the presence of the virus; positive results were received over the weekend. Officials declined to identify the patient, who was said to be quite ill.
News of the first case in the United States comes amid growing evidence that the virus spreads from person to person, although it is not clear how easily.
The outbreak, which began in a seafood and poultry market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, is spreading: Patients have been identified in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, as well as Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.
On Tuesday, Chinese authorities confirmed that six people have died of the infection in Wuhan. Nearly 300 cases have been reported to date in China. Many of the patients lived in or traveled to Wuhan.
The World Health Organization will meet tomorrow to decide whether to declare the outbreak an international public health emergency. But information about the new virus is still thin, and it’s not clear whether or how many Americans are at risk.
“There are still more questions that we don’t know the answers to than things we do know,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
“For example, what is the source? We don’t know exactly. The location likely was the live animal market, but we don’t know the particular animal.”
The more pressing and urgent question, he said: “How frequent is human to human transmission?”
In one instance a patient appears to have infected 14 health care workers in a medical facility, but that individual may have been a “super-spreader,” he said. “Could people with mild infections transmit this virus from person to person? That all remains still under investigation.”
On Monday, Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville changed its electronic prompts so that any patients coming in to its hospital, emergency room or clinics with a fever or respiratory symptoms will be asked whether they have been to China recently or have had contact with anyone who has recently traveled to China.
Hospitals around the country are likely taking similar steps, Dr. Schaffner said, in an effort to quickly identify infected patients and place them in isolation so they can be cared for safely by hospital workers, and so specimens can be collected for testing.
Dr. Schaffner cautioned anyone traveling to China to avoid visiting live animal markets and to keep a distance from all live animals, including domesticated farm animals. Travelers to China should practice lots of good hand hygiene, he added, and do their best to avoid anyone who is coughing or sneezing.