BOSTON — State health officials are bracing for the arrival of a deadly virus that has killed more than 100 people, sickened thousands in China, and is now spreading globally.
So far, no cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Massachusetts, but the state is preparing for the infectious disease.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has advised hospitals and community health centers to be on the lookout for patients with respiratory illness who recently visited Wuhan, the capital of China's Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
"Right now, the risk of the novel coronavirus is low in Massachusetts, but of course this is a rapidly evolving situation and that could change," said Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director for DPH's Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. "It's really hard to predict where an outbreak will go, but we need to be prepared."
The chief medical officer for Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, Dr. Gail Fayre, said her facility, as part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, "is participating in a large, multidisciplinary task force that is carefully monitoring the international outbreak.”
“We are prepared should a patient present with a suspected or confirmed case of this virus," Fayre said in a statement. "While we do not have any suspected cases at the hospital at this time, we follow CDC guidelines for precautions and appropriate personal protective equipment in caring for patients. We are screening for relevant travel history on top of our seasonal screening for fever and respiratory viral illness and counsel all patients about travel to high-risk areas based on the CDC’s travel advisories."
Fayre, who said symptoms of this virus present like a cold or flu, reiterated that prevention is key, urging people to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently and to use good cough etiquette to help prevent the spread of viruses.
As of Tuesday, China had reported about 4,500 cases of the virus.
In the U.S., health officials have confirmed at least five cases of the coronavirus in four states — Indiana, Arizona, California and Washington — according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In its latest advisory Monday, the federal agency said it is conducting tests on at least 110 people in 26 states who may have contracted the illness.
In New Hampshire, two people with respiratory illnesses who recently traveled to China are being tested, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
"The risk to our communities in New Hampshire is low, but we want to identify people who may be infected with this new coronavirus in order to prevent spread," Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state's epidemiologist, said in a statement. "This is a rapidly changing situation, and we remain committed to providing timely updates."
The coronavirus family includes infections that cause the common cold, but some found in bats, camels and other animals have evolved into more severe illnesses such as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, according to health officials.
Initial symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.
There is no vaccine available to ward off infection and no specific treatment for those who get sick aside from managing their symptoms, the CDC said.
On Monday, the CDC raised its travel precautions for China to the highest of three levels and advised travelers to "avoid nonessential travel" to the country.
The U.S. State Department has ordered the evacuation of all nonemergency personnel and their families from Hubei Province.
In China, at least 15 cities and more than 57 million people have been placed under full or partial lockdown to prevent the spread of illness.
The timing of the outbreak, which coincides with the Chinese New Year, has heightened fears of the virus’s further spread. During the weeklong national holiday, tens of millions of Chinese living abroad and in other parts of the country travel back to their hometowns for celebrations.
Concerns have also been raised that the Chinese government was too slow to contain the outbreak, which allowed the illness to spread globally.
When the SARS virus began infecting people in 2002, the Chinese government initially tried to conceal the severity of the epidemic, which ended up killing nearly 800 people.
Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered provincial governments to promptly release information on the virus and improve international cooperation.
In the U.S., airports in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Francisco have stepped up health checks for passengers arriving from China.
Despite the public concerns, Madoff points out that a more common virus is posing a greater threat — influenza.
Nationwide, the flu is widespread in 48 states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, with an estimated 15 million confirmed cases and 8,200 deaths reported.
Last week, Massachusetts reported its first pediatric flu-related death, a teenager from Worcester County, according to the state health department.
Madoff urges people to get vaccinated, take precautions and "stay home when sick to limit the spread of disease."
"People who come down with a respiratory illness may be worried that they've got coronavirus when in fact they've got the flu," he said. "So getting the flu vaccine is still a good idea."
For more information on the coronavirus, see www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.
Daily News reporter Heather Alterisio contributed to this report.