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Mass. officials say risk from new coronavirus is low, but they’re staying vigilant

Massachusetts public health officials say the risk of the new coronavirus from China striking in the state right now is small, but they’re working closely with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor the rapidly evolving situation.

There have been no cases in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health said.

Officials advised people to continue to do what they’ve already suggested that people do to stave off the flu virus that goes around this time of year.

“The risk to Massachusetts residents from this novel coronavirus is currently low," DPH spokeswoman Ann Scales said in a statement. "However, this is the season for respiratory viruses including the flu and many of the same recommended precautions apply to coronaviruses. People should continue taking precautions to avoid illness, including urging people with flu-like illnesses to stay home, washing hands, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and covering coughs.”

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The officials said that the major route for spread of the virus appears to be from the respiratory tract secretions of an infected person to another person, but more data needs to be collected.

The new coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, according to a CDC update page.

Hundreds of cases have been confirmed, and Chinese authorities reported Wednesday that 17 people have died from the pneumonia-like illness.

Massachusetts officials said novel virus infections are always a public health concern, and the DPH would provide updated information and guidance for the public as it becomes available.

The risks, the DPH said, depend on factors such as how easily the virus spreads, how severe the resulting illness is, and whether there are effective vaccines or treatments to prevent or stop it.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, the computer system has been updated to alert staff, particularly in the emergency department, to ask sick patients if they have traveled from the Wuhan area, said Dr. David Hooper, chief of the infection control unit at the hospital. The hospital already has similar procedures in place for diseases such as MERS and avian influenza.

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If a patient is flagged as possibly being infected with coronavirus, the patient will be isolated and specimens will be taken for testing, he said.

“The key element is taking a travel history,” said Hooper, who said he was sure other area hospitals were also putting similar procedures in place.

DPH said Wednesday in an alert to health care providers, "Patients who report recent travel to Wuhan who present to any facility or provider with a fever, lower respiratory tract symptoms (such as shortness of breath and cough), and/or contact with a known novel coronavirus patient should be asked to wear a surgical mask and be evaluated in a private room with the door closed, ideally an airborne infection isolation room if available.”

“Healthcare personnel entering the room should use standard precautions, contact precautions, airborne precautions, and use eye protection (e.g., goggles or a face shield),” the bulletin said. Doctors should call the DPH after evaluating the patient to see if testing is required.

Chinese state media said Wednesday that the city of Wuhan was shutting down outbound flights and trains as the outbreak raised alarms around the world.

Thailand has reported four cases of the illness, while South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States have each reported one case. The US case was a man in the state of Washington who had traveled to Wuhan.

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The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting Wednesday to decide whether to designate the outbreak as an international public health emergency.

Late last week, US health officials began screening passengers from Wuhan at three US airports — New York City’s Kennedy airport and the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports. On Tuesday, the CDC announced it will add Chicago’s O’Hare airport and Atlanta’s airport to the mix later this week.

What’s more, officials will begin forcing all passengers that originate in Wuhan to go to one of those five airports if they wish to enter the United States. That is expected to happen by this weekend, Massachusetts authorities said.

Three daily nonstop flights come into Boston’s Logan International Airport from China. But the flights are not from Wuhan. They come from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, an airport spokeswoman said last week.

There are no immediate plans to begin screening at Logan, DPH said in its alert.

The virus has so far defied control in China, and the mass movement of people ahead of the Lunar New Year’s Day holiday on Saturday — the largest human migration on the planet — poses a unique challenge.

An estimated 3 billion trips will be made in China during the 40-day period around the turn of the Lunar New Year. It is a time notorious even in China for crowded trains and buses, conditions that are ripe for the virus to spread.

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Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.