NEW YORK (CBS SF/AP) — For the first time in the U.S., the new virus from China has spread from one person to another, health officials said Thursday.
The latest case — the sixth in the country — is the husband of a Chicago woman who got sick from the virus after she returned from the epicenter of an outbreak in China. There have been previous cases in China and elsewhere of the virus spreading between people in a household or workplace.
The other five U.S. cases are travelers who developed the respiratory illness after returning to the U.S. from China. The latest patient had not been in China.
The World Health Organization has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, after an emergency committee reconvened Thursday in Geneva.
Last week, the organization said the virus did not yet constitute the emergency declaration. But with rising numbers and evidence of person-to-person transmission in a handful of cases outside of China, WHO leadership called the committee back together over concerns of a larger outbreak down the line.
“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it.”
WHO defines a public health emergency of international concern as “an extraordinary event” that constitutes a “public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and “to potentially require a coordinated international response.” Previous emergencies have included Ebola, Zika and H1N1.
The Chicago woman came back from the central China city of Wuhan on Jan. 13, then last week went to a hospital with symptoms and was diagnosed with the viral illness. She and her husband, both in their 60s, are hospitalized. Neither have been identified.
The man began feeling sick Tuesday and was put in isolation that day. Tests confirming that he was infected came back Wednesday night, Illinois health officials said at a Chicago press conference.
Twenty-one people, including health care workers, who may have had close contact with the man are being monitored, the officials said. But they were quick to try to ease any concerns that the case may signal the start of local outbreak.
“The risk to the general public remains low. This person-to-person spread was between two very close contacts, a husband and wife,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The man doesn’t use public transportation and he had not attended any large gatherings, officials said.
The virus can cause fever, coughing, wheezing and pneumonia. Health officials think it spreads mainly from droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how the flu spreads.
Experts have said they expected additional U.S. cases, and that at least some limited spread of the disease in the country was likely.
“We anticipated this,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert. “The kind of contact that you have in a household is very close and very prolonged. That’s the kind of circumstance where we would anticipate a virus such as this could be transmitted.”
The quick detection and isolation of the new patient shows, “The system is working,” said Schaffner, adding that he does not expect the virus to become widespread in the country.
The new virus is a member of the coronavirus family that’s a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. The new virus has sickened thousands, mostly in China, and killed about 170.
Older people, and those with other health conditions, are believed to be at greater risk for severe illness from the virus. The new patient has a health condition, but health officials did not say what it is.
An international outbreak caused by the virus first emerged last month in China. Doctors there began seeing the new virus in people who got sick after spending time at a wholesale food market in Wuhan. Officials said the virus probably initially spread from animals to people, as did SARS and MERS.
The other U.S. cases are in Arizona, Southern California and Washington state, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Wednesday, the Monterey County Health Department confirmed that three people in the county have been tested for the Wuhan coronavirus.
After initially telling KPIX that five people were being tested for the coronavirus, a Monterey County Health Department official corrected herself and said that while five people were assessed, only three of the five met the criteria for being tested.
The samples from all three individuals are being tested by the CDC, the Monterey County Health Department told KPIX.
So far, one of the people have tested negative, but the Health Department is still waiting on results from the CDC for the other two subjects.
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.