Friends, family and community members who were in close contact with a Chicago couple who had the novel coronavirus are free and clear of the illness and the risk to the public remains low, local health officials said Thursday in Chinatown.
Health officials said they are no longer monitoring close contacts of the couple, though they declined to say how many people they had been watching for symptoms. Some health care workers who were in contact with the couple are still being monitored, said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. The couple was released from Amita Health St. Alexius Medical Center Hoffman Estates last week and have returned home, though they are still being monitored.
“This is a huge milestone in terms of controlling this virus locally and should help everyone in the region breathe a sigh of relief,” Arwady said. “Right now, right here in Chicago and across the country, the risk is low.”
The Chicago woman who caught the virus, known as COVID-19, had recently traveled to Wuhan, China, and her husband caught it from her after she returned. The couple, both in their 60s, were the first instance of person-to-person transmission of the illness in the U.S. So far, there have been 15 cases in the U.S.
Health officials made the announcement during a morning press conference Thursday in Chinatown, which has seen business suffer as customers worried about catching the virus steer clear of the area, normally a bustling tourist destination. Business is down as much as 50% in some restaurants there.
Health officials and community leaders emphasized Chinatown is safe, and there’s no reason to avoid the neighborhood.
Arwady said she ate at a restaurant and went shopping in Chinatown, where tables were full during recent Lunar New Year celebrations, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot marched in the Lunar New Year parade.
“Please do not allow stigma, xenophobia or fear to control your decisions,” Arwady said. “Chinatown and all of Chicago are open for business.”
More than 60,000 cases have been reported worldwide, and more than 1,000 people have died, including two outside of China — in the Philippines and Japan, according to the World Health Organization, which has declared the virus an international public health emergency. About 14,840 cases were reported in Hubei Province overnight Thursday, though that spike is likely due to a new way of identifying those with the virus, through chest imaging, the World Heath Organization said.
Symptoms of the virus can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. It’s believed symptoms appear anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure.
O’Hare International Airport was among the first airports in the country to begin screening travelers for the virus and one of 11 where passengers are being routed if they’ve visited China within the prior 14 days. Those passengers are being asked about their health and travel and screened for fever, cough, or trouble breathing.
Before the outbreak in Wuhan, thousands of passengers who’d recently traveled to China would pass through O’Hare each day, Arwady said. Now, that number is down to fewer than 100, she said. So far, none have showed symptoms of the sickness during screening, she said.
U.S.-based airlines stopped offering flights to and from mainland China after the U.S. government issued a “do not travel” warning for China. Foreign nationals who’ve visited China within 14 days are not allowed to enter the U.S. American citizens and lawful permanent residents who visited Hubei Province 14 days before entering the U.S. face mandatory quarantines for two weeks.
When asked if any travelers had been quarantined in the Chicago area, Arwady said, “We have used that process if we have someone who has come through Hubei Province.” She declined to say how many times.
Americans who are returning from other parts of China and don’t show symptoms are being asked to monitor their health for two weeks, stay home and keep away from others as much as possible. The Chicago Department of Public Health is reaching out to those who’ve passed through O’Hare to make sure they’re checking for symptoms.
Initial screenings at airports won’t likely catch everyone with COVID-19, experts say.
A University of Chicago epidemiologist recently released research showing airport screenings are likely to miss at least half of people with the virus.
Epidemiologist Katelyn Gostic was one of the lead authors on a 2015 study published in the peer-reviewed journal eLife that found airport screenings likely missed half to three-quarters of travelers with H1N1, MERS, SARS and Ebola. That rate of misses is likely similar for COVID-19, she found, in preliminary research submitted for peer review late last month.
“We know that screening is not all that effective,” Gostic said. “We know even if you screen, a lot of people will pass through undetected.”
Efforts to screen passengers for fevers aren’t always successful because people may not have developed symptoms yet, she said. And questionnaires aren’t always helpful because a person might not know he or she has been exposed, or might lie about their potential exposure out of fear their travel plans will be derailed, she said.
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Still, she and other experts say there is some benefit to screenings. They may catch some people with the illness and could educate travelers about what to do if they develop symptoms after they leave the airport, she said.
“You can throw one or two sparks on the ground but it doesn’t guarantee that a fire is going to start,” she said. “Airport screening is just one way we can try to stop those sparks from getting through, but it’s not the only way we can stamp them out or try to prevent a fire from spreading.”
CDC officials have also said airport screenings are just one piece of what they’re doing to slow the spread of the sickness.
“We can and should be prepared for this new virus to gain a foothold in the U.S.,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a call with reporters Wednesday. “The goal of the measures we have taken to date are to slow the introduction and impact of this disease in the United States but at some point, we are likely to see community spread in the U.S.”
Local health officials made similar comments Thursday, even after sharing the good news that the Chicago couple with the virus didn’t spread it to their friends or family.
“We expect it probably will get worse internationally before it gets better,” Arwady said. “If the level of risk to the general public changes, which it could further down the line, we will notify the public immediately.”