HHS Declares Coronavirus Emergency,
Orders Quarantine

Doug Brunk

January 31, 2020

The federal government declared a formal public health emergency on Jan. 31 to aid in the response to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). The declaration, issued by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex. M. Azar II gives state, tribal, and local health departments additional flexibility to request assistance from the federal government in responding to the coronavirus.

"While this virus poses a serious public health threat, the risk to the American public remains low at this time, and we are working to keep this risk low."

The government also began a quarantine of travelers. The 195 passengers who arrived at March Air Reserve Base in Ontario, Calif., from Wuhan, China on Jan. 29 are under federal quarantine amid growing concerns about the 2019-nCoV—the first such action taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in more than 50 years.

Passengers board buses after arriving on an airplane carrying US citizens being evacuated from Wuhan, China, at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif.

"This decision is based on the current scientific facts," Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a press briefing Jan. 31. "While we understand the action seems drastic, our goal today, tomorrow, and always continues to be the safety of the American public. We would rather be remembered for over-reacting than under-reacting."

These actions come on the heels of the World Health Organization's Jan. 30 declaration of 2019-nCoV as a public health emergency of international concern, and from a recent spike in cases reported by Chinese health officials. "Every day this week China has reported additional cases," Dr. Messonnier said. "Today's numbers are a 26% increase since yesterday. Over the course of the last week, there have been nearly 7,000 new cases reported. This tells us the virus is continuing to spread rapidly in China. The reported deaths have continued to rise as well. In addition, locations outside China have continued to report cases. There have been an increasing number of reports of person-to-person spread, and now, most recently, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine of asymptomatic spread."


The quarantine of passengers will last 14 days from when the plane left Wuhan, China. Martin Cetron, MD, who directs the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said that the quarantine order "offers the greatest level of protection for the American public in preventing introduction and spread. That is our primary concern. Prior epidemics suggest that when people are properly informed, they're usually very compliant with this request to restrict their movement. This allows someone who would become symptomatic to be rapidly identified. Offering early, rapid diagnosis of their illness could alleviate a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. In addition, this is a protective effect on family members. No individual wants to be the source of introducing or exposing a family member or a loved one to their virus. Additionally, this is part of their civic responsibility to protect their communities."

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.


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