As the death toll from the coronavirus climbed to 213, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on Thursday and the U.S. Department of State upped its travel warning on China to the highest level.
The news comes as U.S. health officials reported the first U.S. case of person-to-person spread of the virus.
The U.N. health agency defines an international emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. The State Department, in a late-evening advisory, ratcheted up its warning level on China to Level 4 – Do Not Travel.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, which held its Emergency Committee meeting in Geneva, said there are 98 cases of coronavirus in 18 countries.
Dr. Tedros praised China for its quick response to the crisis, which broke out in December, saying the emergency declaration “is not a vote of no confidence in China.”
The goal of the declaration, he said, was to provide support for countries with weaker health systems that have imported the virus from China.
Among the committee’s seven-point recommendations, he said, were the speeding up of the development of vaccines and diagnostics and a review of each country’s preparedness plans.
There was no need for any measures that would “unnecessarily interfere” with international trade and travel, he said.
In strong closing remarks, Dr. Tedros stressed the need for countries to share data, knowledge and experience with each other.
“This is the time for facts, not fear,” he said. “This is the time for science, not rumors. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”
The first case of person-to-person transmission in the U.S. is the husband of a Chicago woman who developed symptoms after visiting China.
The woman, who is in her 60s, was hospitalized after being diagnosed with the illness following her return from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, on Jan. 13. She and her husband, who did not join her on the trip, are hospitalized.
“We understand this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, our assessment remains that the immediate risk to the American public is low,” said Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Chicago, Allison Arwady, chief medical officer at Chicago Department of Public Health, echoed that view, saying authorities were prepared for such a development.
“We do not have signs of spread in the general public at this time … there is no local emergency,” Arwady said.
She described the woman as “doing well” and said her husband is in “stable condition.”
Health officials think the new virus spreads mainly from droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how the flu spreads.
The new case, confirmed by the CDC at a news conference, is the sixth reported in the United States. The other U.S. cases, which occurred after visits to China, are in Arizona, Southern California and Washington state.
At a press briefing last week, the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier warned: “We are likely going to see some cases among close contacts of travelers and human-to-human transmission.”
The latest figures released by China on Thursday covered the past 24 hours and put the death toll at 213. The figures represented an increase of 43 deaths and 1,981 cases for a total of 9,692. Many of the latest deaths were in Hubei province, where Wuhan is situated.
Based on the latest figures, the coronavirus fatality rate is 2.2%, a slight rise over the previous day’s fatality rate. Overall, that compares with a fatality rate of 9.6% for SARS.
The new virus has now infected more people in China than were sickened there during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, another type of coronavirus.
As the illness has spread, numerous countries, airlines and travel groups began scrambling to cut service to China, extract citizens or screen individuals who had been there recently in a desperate effort to contain the contagious illness.
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The WHO emergencies chief, Michael Ryan, upon returning from Beijing, said China was taking “extraordinary measures in the face of an extraordinary challenge” posed by the outbreak.
He estimated the death rate of the new virus at 2% but said the figure was very 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 it infected. The new virus 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.
Dr. Igor Koralnik, a neuro-infectious disease specialist at Northwestern Medicine, told USA TODAY there is no evidence that the virus is spreading in the population, or community.
“I don’t think it’s time for a mass hysteria or panic in the U.S.,” he said.
As the crisis mounted, Scandinavian Airlines said it was halting all flights to Beijing and Shanghai from Feb. 9 while Iberian airlines announced it was halting three return flights a week between Madrid and Shanghai beginning Friday.
Israel’s El Al and Korean Air also joined the growing list of airlines – British Airways, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Swiss, Air France and KLM – that were suspending or reducing service to China.
An A380 passenger plane left Portugal to China on Thursday to pick up around 350 Europeans who want to leave as the virus spreads. The plane was stopping in Paris to pick up additional medical personnel for what Captain Antonios Efthymiou called a “humanitarian mission.”
New Zealand, Australia, India, Singapore and other countries were also trying to get out their citizens, along with Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
France confirmed its sixth case of the infection on Thursday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned travelers to avoid all nonessential trips to China. The U.S. State Department has requested that all non-essential U.S. government personnel defer travel to China.
The U.S., which evacuated 195 Americans from Wuhan on Wednesday, said additional flights were being planned next week to bring out more U.S. citizens.
Those already extracted were being tested and monitored at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California, where they will be monitored twice a day for at least three days for fever and other symptoms.
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“There’s a lot about this virus that we don’t know. But, something that we also have to keep in mind is that these folks need to come home. … The risk to the public remains low and we aim to keep it that way,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County’s public health officer.
Officials said the passengers who don’t exhibit symptoms in those first 72 hours will be able to travel to their home states and on to their families or residences. They will, however, continue to be monitored for a maximum of 14 days.
“When they leave and go to their home states, at least twice a day someone from public health will contact them and say, ‘Do you have any of these symptoms?’ ‘Tell me your temperature?’ or ‘I’m going to take your temperature,'” Braden said.
In Russia, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a decree to close the country’s border with China, Russia’s Sputnik News reported.
Meanwhile, the Italian Ministry of Health said Thursday night that two people with flu-like symptoms aboard a cruise ship docked north of Rome were found not to have the coronavirus. Officials had kept the 6,000 passengers on board the Costa Smeralda for screening until the conditions of the pair could be determined. One of the individuals is a 54-year-old passenger from Macao.
Contributing: Colin Atagi, Palm Springs Desert Sun; Associated Press