Starting today, passengers arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport from Wuhan, China will be screened for symptoms of a new coronavirus that has sickened dozens in Asia and killed two people.
The screenings are targeting passengers arriving from Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei region in central China, where the outbreak started in the area last month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which will be administering the screenings.
The new strain of the virus, known as 2019-nCoV, has sickened at least 41 people and killed two elderly patients. Health officials in Thailand and Japan have also seen infected patients in their countries. Most of the patients said they had recently traveled to Wuhan.
"The risk to the American public is currently deemed to be low. Nevertheless, CDC is taking proactive preparedness precautions," the CDC said in a release Friday.
The virus's symptoms can include "respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the World Health Organization said.
"Reportedly, most patients have had links to a large seafood and live animal market," which has been closed since January 1st, when it was cleaned and disinfected, the CDC said. Nonetheless, their guidance for travelers to Wuhan is to avoid contact with sick people, animals (dead or alive), animal markets, and raw animal products.
It's not clear if the virus can be transmitted from human to human, the CDC said on its website. "Chinese health officials report no confirmed human-to-human spread and no health care workers caring for patients have been reported ill." But the CDC also noted that, "Some patients in the outbreak reportedly have not had exposure to animal markets, suggesting that some limited person-to-person spread may be occurring. All the characteristics of this virus and how it may affect people are still unclear."
In addition to JFK, LAX and SFO will also screen passengers from Wuhan starting this weekend. The CDC said they are sending 100 personnel to the three airports to assist with screenings. The New York Times said about 5,000 passengers are likely to be screened in the next few weeks; each year about 60,000 to 65,000 people travel from Wuhan to the United States.
The screenings will consist of CDC staff administering questionnaires and checking for fever and other symptoms.
The timing of the outbreak comes on the cusp of Lunar New Year, which begins January 25th and sets off what's called the largest human migration on the planet as millions of people travel for the holiday.
The outbreak is still a mystery to health officials.
"Much remains to be understood about the new coronavirus," the WHO cautioned in its latest memo issued on Thursday. "Not enough is known about 2019-nCoV to draw definitive conclusions about how it is transmitted, clinical features of disease, or the extent to which it has spread. The source also remains unknown." The CDC said they will continue to monitor and respond to "this evolving situation."