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Mass. won’t say whether the state has seen suspected coronavirus cases

But New Hampshire and Connecticut revealed their cases, as states grapple with how best to respond to an emerging illness.

The federal government is monitoring more than 100 people for the novel coronavirus that has thrown China into crisis.

These are patients from 26 states who suffered respiratory symptoms after traveling to China and whose state health departments sent samples for testing to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Was Massachusetts one of those states? State officials won’t say.

In New Hampshire, they will. In a press release Monday, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services revealed that two residents were being tested for the virus, and a spokesman named the hospitals where the patients are being kept in isolation.


Connecticut is also choosing transparency. Governor Ned Lamont posted a detailed message about two people who were tested for coronavirus, specifying that one was Wesleyan University student and naming the counties where they live. Both turned out to have the flu.

But when asked about a credible report of a suspected coronavirus case in Massachusetts, the state’s Department of Public Health said it will release information only about confirmed cases. And there have been no confirmed cases in the state. (Five have been confirmed nationwide.) Rhode Island’s Health Department said it has similar rules in place.

There is widespread inconsistency in states’ responses to the coronavirus, but most are at least revealing how many cases are under investigation, said Michael Fraser, chief executive officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials

“What you’re seeing is the fact that we’re still so early on with dealing with this outbreak,” he said. “We’re trying to get states on the same page.”

Still, he expressed surprise at Massachusetts’ decision to report only confirmed cases. “I don’t know why they would do that,” he said. “Most states are reporting those numbers.”

Massachusetts health officials gave several reasons for their policy on Tuesday. With emerging illnesses, the number and status of people under investigation change frequently. Someone who is appropriate for testing can later be ruled out, and even the criteria for testing can change frequently.


In Rhode Island, Health Department spokesman Joseph Wendelken said the state is providing information on confirmed cases only “to cut down on confusion and to avoid releasing multiple sets of numbers.”

The issue of how much to tell the public about coronavirus investigations came up during a phone call that the association held among state health officials on Sunday, Fraser said.

Some said there were many suspected cases, and most if not all will turn out to be the flu; health officials don’t want to stir needless anxiety, he said.

Other officials question the public benefit in revealing where the suspected cases are.

And, Fraser noted that releasing too much information can have unintended consequences. For example, people might avoid a hospital that treated a patient, even if all the infection-control protocols are followed. Indeed, the hospital where one of the New Hampshire patients is staying felt it necessary to post on Facebook that there is no risk to patients or visitors.

That patient is a student at The White Mountain School in Bethlehem, who returned from a trip to China on Jan. 6 and came to Littleton Regional Healthcare with mild flu-like symptoms on Jan. 23. The school, a boarding school, also sent a letter to parents detailing the measures it took to protect other students and staff.


But Fraser acknowledged that too much secrecy creates its own anxieties, and said that association would suggest that states release the number of cases under investigation, as the CDC is doing.

The states that have released information varied in how much they gave out. Some merely said cases were under investigation; others named the county where the person lived.

“I think people understand the need for some consistency,” Fraser said.

There are other responses state health officials will try to standardize, such as which contacts of a sick person need to be tested — everyone in restaurant where they ate, or just the people at their table? If there’s a confirmed case at a university, do you close the whole place or just a single dorm?

Some of those questions will be answered when more is known about how easily the coronavirus is transmitted, and whether people can spread the virus before they have symptoms, he said.

And answers will also come faster in three or four weeks when the states receive kits from the CDC that will enable them to do their own testing for the virus, Fraser said.

Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her @felicejfreyer.