CDC image of coronavirus

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) — which continues to raise alarm worldwide — has not reached Minnesotans yet, but state health officials are preparing just in case.

“It’s only natural to be concerned about something that is new … which the average person seems to have little control,” said Dough Schultz, information officer for the Minnesota Department of Health. “That said, it’s important to understand that … the risk to Minnesotans at this time is very low because there are no cases in Minnesota.

The coronavirus is known to have originated in Wuhan, China, at a seafood and live animal market where people contracted the virus from animals that carried it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kiza Olson, an administrator for Meeker-McLeod-Sibley Community Health Services, said they will follow guidelines set by MDH and the CDC in case the coronavirus does reach the area.

“I do think we do a good job of educating, promoting the information,” Olson said.

Symptoms of the novel virus when contracted may include signs of infection, respiratory, fever, cough or shortness of breath. More severe cases may include pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death, according to the World Health Origination.

“Minnesota Department of Health is working hard with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local public health agencies, and many health care partners,” Schultz said, “to detect a potential first case in the state and to isolate that case to limit the spread of the virus to other people.

“That said, if we were to get a case of COVID-9 in Minnesota, it is possible that person-to-person spread could occur,” Schultz continued. “But we really do not know how far that spread would go. So far, of the 15 cases in the U.S., person-to-person spread has been limited to close contacts. Nevertheless, we are (expecting) that we could see spread in the U.S., including Minnesota, and are planning for that possibility.”

The coronavirus started making headlines internationally in late December. Worldwide, there have been more than 74,000 confirmed cases, with 2,014 deaths and 15,090 recoveries. Chinese media reported a 60-year-old U.S. citizen died in Wuhan from the virus, on Feb. 6, according to Schultz.

In the United States, there are 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus. In recent times, 14 Americans from a cruise ship, and 44 Americans from the Diamond Princess ship, who tested positive for the virus have returned. More than hundreds of Americans who tested positive for the virus, and quarantined on the Diamond Princess ship in Japan, are returning to the U.S. All passengers will remain under mandatory two-week quarantine while in the U.S., according to news reports.

The likelihood of the coronavirus reaching Minnesota depends on efforts to control its spread in China and at the national level, Schultz said.

“While we are doing all that we can to prevent the virus from spreading in the U.S. and Minnesota, we expect that we could see cases here,” he added.

Schultz said there have been people from Minnesota who traveled to China in January, 14 days before coronavirus posed a threat, but all of them tested negative.

Scientists are currently working on a vaccine for the coronavirus in San Diego, according to news reports. But Schultz believes it will take months — even years — to develop the right vaccine.

“Scientists first have to determine the best way to attack the virus — that is, to help your body defend against it,” Schultz said, explaining that next, they have to develop a way to manufacture the vaccine efficiently and conduct clinical/safety trials before it can be used.

People can practice safety measures by regularly washing their hands, covering their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. People should also avoid close contact with others showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as sneezing and coughing, according to the World Health Organization.

“While there is still much we don’t know about the virus,” Schultz said, “we are learning more each day. Our current understanding is that the severity of the virus and its ability to spread are similar to influenza.

“Currently,” he continued, “influenza is active in Minnesota and we recommend people in your area take precautions against the spread of influenza — get vaccinated, cover coughs and sneezes, stay home if (you) are ill.”

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