Chicago is among five U.S. cities that will test patients who exhibit flu-like symptoms for the novel coronavirus, now officially called COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New York City will also conduct testing, the CDC said Friday during a media call.
“This is just a starting point and we plan to expand to more sites in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s national center for immunization and respiratory diseases.
The tests will be conducted in public health labs that usually test for the flu and other viral respiratory diseases, according to Messonnier. If a specimen tests negative for the flu, it will then be tested for the coronavirus.
“This is an extra layer of our response that will help us detect if and when the virus is spreading in the community,” Messonnier said. “All of our efforts now are to prevent the sustained spread of the virus in our community, but we need to be prepared for the possibility that it will spread.”
Local health officials on Thursday said the risk of contracting the deadly virus is low, and that Chicagoans should go about their daily lives.
The Illinois Department of Public Health said the agency is “in the early stages of exploring means to conduct additional surveillance for COVID-19 and we will keep the public updated,” according to a statement issued Friday by an IDPH spokesperson.
In the U.S., 15 people have been sickened, including two in Chicago. In that case, a woman in her 60s traveled to Wuhan, China, and infected her husband in what was the first person-to-person spread of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. The couple was recently released from quarantine, according to local health officials.
While the CDC says there could be additional U.S. cases, the agency is “optimistic that our aggressive measures have slowed the impact of (the coronavirus) here, and we’re going to continue to move aggressively in that way,” Messonnier said. “We’re preparing for spread but hoping with the measures we’ve taken that we’ll be able to prevent it.”
Coronaviruses are respiratory viruses that range from the common cold to more serious illnesses, like SARS and MERS, and are generally spread via droplets in the air when people cough or sneeze, as happens with the common cold, according to officials. Health officials said it’s not clear how easily transmissible the strain is that originated in Wuhan, known as the novel coronavirus, and that there is no treatment or vaccine for it.
Nearly 64,000 cases have been reported in mainland China, where 1,380 have died, according to The Associated Press.
Messonnier on Friday also warned against the seasonal flu, which has sickened 26 million so far this season, hospitalized 250,000 and killed 14,000. “We have the vaccines and drugs to fight flu illness,” Messonnier said. “We don’t have the tools yet for this novel virus, but there are things everyone can do to contain the spread of the virus.”
To help prevent the spread of coronaviruses, officials advise avoiding people who are sick and washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you haven’t washed your hands, don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth. The CDC does not recommend face masks for the general public.