Officials: No cause for alarm in NJ over novel coronavirus

New Jersey officials on Monday sought to allay growing public concern about the new strain of coronavirus that’s killed more than 900 in China, noting once again that no confirmed cases of the disease are present in the state.

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, who was joined by federal lawmakers Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires and others at a news conference in Newark, also noted that there are also no suspected cases in New Jersey. One airline passenger is under a 14-day quarantine in the state because they had traveled in the central Chinese region that’s the epicenter of the outbreak, not because they had symptoms of the flu-like illness.

Meanwhile, as the officials convened in Newark, the crew of a cruise ship that had been the focus of public worry last week prepared to set sail from Bayonne again, after test results came back negative over the weekend for four Chinese passengers who had screened as possibly being infected with the virus.

Numerous news outlets also reported that authorities had determined that a crew member who died aboard the Anthem of the Seas before it docked in Bayonne at the end of last week was not believed to have had the disease.

The officials said a state coronavirus hotline, manned by state poison control personnel, has fielded some 400 calls about the previously unknown pathogen, many from people who were worried over the reports about the cruise ship in Bayonne, owned by Royal Caribbean.

“People in Bayonne were calling from the parking lot because they thought they had the virus,” said Sires, a Hudson County Democrat.

The test results showed that three of the four passengers had the flu, and the fourth was asymptomatic. All flew back to China this weekend, officials said.

Many of the other calls fielded by the hotline staffers have been for basic information, “’Do I need to wear a mask in public?’ ‘What about on an airplane?’ “I just came back from China and I don’t feel well — what should I do?’” said Dr. Diane Calello who runs the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“We understand that there’s a lot of concern about the virus, but risk to New Jersey residents remains low,” Persichilli said.

Menendez said some state residents trapped in China have reached out to his office, including one woman from Jersey City.

“She was stuck there, worried she could be at risk of exposure to the virus, and if exposed, unable to access quality medical treatment,” he said. “Fortunately, my office was able to arrange for her to get on a State Department chartered flight, and I’m pleased to report she’s back in the United States and doing well.”

Menendez said the woman is now quarantined at a military base on the West Coast, per the safety protocol established by federal authorities for people entering the country from China.

Health officials say that the novel coronavirus has now killed more people than the deadly 2003 outbreak of the SARS virus. More than 40,000 confirmed cases of the new pathogen have been reported in China — and just over 300, and one death, elsewhere, according to the World Health Organization

The federal Centers for Disease Control says that there are 12 confirmed cases in the United States, and no fatalities. The cases are in Massachusetts, Washington, California, Arizona, Wisconsin and Illinois.

At the news conference updating New Jersey’s coronavirus situation, officials said that some 1,200 airline passengers have been screened at Newark Liberty International Airport. Some passengers with no symptoms have been asked to self-monitor. It all depends on a traveler’s level of exposure, the officials said.

“The greatest risk is to those who have recently traveled to China and, in particular, those in Hubei province, where the greatest number of cases have occurred,” said Dr. Lisa McHugh, program coordinator for infectious disease epidemiology at the state Health Department.

Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruise lines have announced they will not accept passengers with Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passports.

Persichilli expressed worry about unintended consequences stemming from the focus on people with a connection to the virus’s epicenter.

“While we understand the concern about this virus, it is all of our responsibility to ensure that there is no stigma associated with this disease,” she said. “We are responding to a virus, not a segment of the population.”

“Many New Jersey residents have loved ones in China, a country that’s lost more than 900 residents,” she added. “So it’s important that we show our empathy and support.”

The number for the state Coronavirus Hotline is 800-222-1222.

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