“I’ve been here since 1996, and that’s the only other time we’ve ever done this — for Ebola,” Cetron said.
The screenings at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport will start tonight, and screenings at San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport will begin Saturday. The CDC will look for symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing and check temperatures of each passenger with an infrared thermometer.
Last year, more than 60,000 passengers flew into the United States from Wuhan, a city 700 miles south of Beijing. The vast majority flew into the three airports where the checks will take place, according to the CDC.
January is the peak travel season from China to the United States because of the Chinese Lunar New Year, Cetron said.
Cetron described the airport screenings as part of a set “proactive preparedness precautions.”
At this point, it appears most people caught the virus directly from animals, and the infection does not spread very easily from person to person.
“This is not a time for people to freak out and be overly concerned,” Cetron said. “This is a time for vigilance and awareness.”
He added that much more common illnesses, such as the flu, are “much bigger threats” to Americans than the new virus from China.
“I’m fully aware that the unknown is more of a source of anxiety than that which is already defined,” he said. “But we should not freak out.”
What we know about the new virus
So far, two people in China have died from this new virus, officially called the 2019 Novel Coronavirus. Some 45 people in China have become infected. Some have developed pneumonia.
Chinese health authorities have reported that most of the patients in Wuhan had visited a large seafood and animal market. However, some patients in the outbreak reportedly had not been to animal markets, which suggests that “some limited person-to-person spread may be occurring,” according to the CDC.
At least for now, that spread appears to be quite limited. Cetron said it’s “reassuring” that Chinese authorities report that no health care workers who’ve cared for the patients have become infected, and that some 700 other contacts of patients have also not become ill.
“This isn’t anywhere near in the same category as measles or flu,” Cetron said. Those two infections spread easily from person to person.
To learn more about this new virus, health authorities are taking a close look at SARS.
Cetron emphasized that this new virus may be different from its cousin and behave in unexpected ways.
“We have to have humility and appreciate that it may be different. We can’t just assume that what we know from previous viruses will always apply,” he said.
New screening procedures
Cetron said he expects that “the vast majority” of passengers arriving from Wuhan will be healthy. CDC will give them information in English and Mandarin about what symptoms to look for over the next two weeks.
After further investigation, travelers that are symptomatic will be sent to local hospitals that work with the CDC.
Cetron said the symptoms of the new virus are so common that he expects the screenings will catch many more people with the flu or other winter viruses than with the new coronavirus.
If it turns out someone does have the new virus, they’ll be isolated in the hospital.
“It’s quite remarkable to me that from a cluster of pneumonia detected just a little over a month ago in Wuhan, China, we have fully sequenced the virus and have some diagnostic capability to test for it,” he said.