2 coronavirus cases suspected in Minnesota; officials prep for spread

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A woman speaks at a podium as two others stand behind her.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks at a press conference about coronavirus alongside state epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield, center, and infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann, left, in St. Paul on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Editor’s note (Jan. 27): State health officials say results on the two Minnesota cases came back negative for coronavirus.

State health officials said Friday they are monitoring two possible cases of coronavirus in Minnesota, and they outlined their plans to respond quickly to contain any infection here.

The virus poses a very low risk to Minnesotans as of now, but “we know that the potential for public concern is heightened when something has never been seen before and there are things that we don’t know about it,” State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters.

“We know that finding cases quickly and responding to them effectively is so very key,” Malcolm said. “That rapid response helps ensure that the ill persons receive the care that they need and it lessens the chance of other people getting sick, thereby containing the spread of the virus.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed two cases of the novel coronavirus in Seattle and Chicago. There are 63 suspected cases nationwide, including two in Minnesota, according to the state Health Department.

The CDC describes coronaviruses as a “large family of viruses, some causing respiratory illness in people and others circulating among animals including camels, cats and bats.” The agency says it’s rare to see a coronavirus evolve, infect and spread among humans.

However, an outbreak of the virus in Wuhan city, Hubei province, China, has put health officials across the world on alert. The Washington Post reports there have been more than 800 confirmed cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus infection in China, and at least 26 deaths.

Infections have also been confirmed in Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Nepal, Macao and South Korea. Several countries, including the United States, have been tracking the virus and screening travelers from Wuhan at different airports.

Minnesota health officials have sent samples on the two suspected cases here to the CDC for testing. Those individuals, who’d traveled to China within the past two weeks, were asked to isolate themselves at home while investigators review travel history and symptoms, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

The moves are similar to those used by the department during a 2017 measles outbreak. Ehresmann, though, said it’s difficult to determine if someone’s suffering from a simple cold or flu, or the coronavirus since many of the symptoms overlap, so travel history is important.

“We are not Wuhan,” said state epidemiologist and medical director Dr. Ruth Lynfield. “We do not have this virus circulating in our community.

The risk is for people who have traveled to an area where the virus is circulating,” she added. “We do not think this is like [the] measles virus, which is extremely transmissible in the air and we think it is of a different nature.”

The state Health Department is working with health providers and groups across the state to coordinate care for patients who are suspected to have the virus as well as protecting staff who may treat them.

The agency’s operations will expand to fit the needs of the situation and track the virus, said Ehresmann, who urged people to “practice good respiratory hygiene — cover your cough, cough into your elbow, wash your hands and stay home when you’re sick.”