Maine does not yet have any cases of coronavirus, but state and local health officials are preparing in case the virus that has infected thousands in China gains a stronger foothold in the United States and migrates to Maine.

The coronavirus has infected more than 6,000 worldwide, mostly in China, causing 132 deaths and prompting the Chinese government to put entire regions on lockdown. The virus appears to have emanated from Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in China.

There have been only five confirmed cases in the United States, but health officials are keeping close tabs on the virus because it’s new and scientists don’t yet know how dangerous it is. New Hampshire is currently testing two patients who recently traveled to China and experienced coronavirus symptoms, state health officials said.

Researchers who are ramping up studies of the coronavirus include Dr. Meghan May, an associate professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that protocols are evolving and his agency is in close contact with U.S. CDC officials to develop plans in case the outbreak spreads. Large U.S. airports started screening international travelers for coronavirus on Tuesday.

“Our overall understanding of this outbreak is shifting all the time,” Shah said. “It is literally the day job of the Maine CDC to prepare, so we are preparing for this. But there are no cases in Maine (as of Tuesday).”

Shah said the Maine CDC is working with health systems across Maine to develop screening questions for patients, asking if they had traveled to China recently, and if so, do they have any flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, cough, sore throat and a runny nose.

The Maine CDC is recommending that all Maine hospitals screen patients for the virus, Shah said.

He said that if a patient shows up at a Maine hospital with coronavirus symptoms and had recently traveled to China, the patient would be “immediately spirited away” to isolation rooms at hospitals to prevent the disease from spreading. Samples would be taken from the patient and sent to the U.S. CDC for testing. If the tests came back positive for coronavirus, the patient would remain in isolation at a Maine hospital until tests showed that the virus had cleared out of the patient’s system, Shah said.

A patient with mild symptoms who gets tested at a primary care office and is found to have coronavirus will be handled “on a case-by-case basis,” Shah said.

“There is not quite yet a common standard if that were to occur,” Shah said. “It’s really highly case-specific.”

A performance scheduled for Feb. 13 in Portland by the Shanghai-based GuGu Drum Group has been canceled because of concerns about potential transmission of the virus, Portland Ovations announced in a tweet on Tuesday.

There is no vaccine yet for coronavirus, but scientists are working on developing one, Shah said. There is no treatment for coronavirus, other than rest, but prevention is similar to the flu and other communicable diseases. Practice good hygiene, wash hands often, stay home when ill and cover the mouth when coughing.

While worldwide news reports are focusing on coronavirus, influenza is far more prevalent and deadly.

“Influenza kills more Americans than any other virus,” Shah said. “Just this year alone, there have been 13 million influenza cases, with 120,000 hospitalized and 6,000 deaths. It is not too late to get your flu shot.”

Flu season runs from October through May. Flu is widespread in Maine with 2,293 Mainers testing positive for influenza, 159 hospitalized and eight deaths through Jan. 18.

Scientists are comparing the coronavirus to the SARS outbreak in 2003, which infected 8,098, killing 774, according to the U.S. CDC. SARS also began in China, and the United States was largely spared, with only a handful of cases.

“It seems that novel coronavirus is a little less severe than SARS, but it is very early to compare the two directly,” said May, the UNE researcher.

May, who researches infectious diseases, said she is currently working on gene sequencing of the coronavirus, and hopes to have the results published in a scholarly journal in two to three months. Sequencing is the process of determining the order of the basic genetic components and can be critical for guiding diagnosis and treatment.

May said it’s difficult to draw any conclusions yet, but scientists are learning much in the short time that coronavirus has been infecting people.

“Making models and predictions at this point is a fool’s errand,” May said.

The Chinese’ government’s response to the public health crisis – quarantining more than a dozen cities and restricting the movement of 48 million people – is controversial, and it’s unknown how effective it will be, May said.

May said one threat with coronavirus is that it appears to be contagious before patients experience symptoms.

“When people don’t know that they are contagious because they don’t know that they’re sick, it becomes exponentially harder to control,” May said. In contrast, people start having influenza symptoms before they are contagious, she said.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, said that MaineHealth is already screening its patients for coronavirus.  The U.S. CDC is recommending against traveling to China, although there is not an outright ban.

“Clearly, people should not be going to China right now,” Mills said.

The top Maine health official when the SARS outbreak occurred, Mills said at that time there was a “surprising” amount of travel between Maine and China. A dozen people were suspected of having SARS in 2003, but none tested positive for the disease.

Mills said it’s best to be cautious with a new virus.

“This coronavirus is very unpredictable right now,” she said. “It could be mutating and evolving as we speak.”

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