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With coronavirus: Exactly what is ‘a close contact’?

Misleading info cause for concern

Anna Maria Barry-Jester California Healthline | 2/14/2020, midnight

Santa Clara County in California has reported two confirmed cases of the virus, both in people who recently traveled to China. Anyone who lived with one of those people would be considered at high risk, said Dr. Sarah Rudman, an assistant public health officer with the county. They are monitored for symptoms, and asked to stay home and away from others for two weeks. To date, the only two people known to have caught the virus via human-to-human transmission in the U.S. live with someone who got it in China.

Health care workers also are given special consideration. Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old doctor in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, raised early alarm bells about the virus after several cases appeared in the hospital where he worked. He ultimately contracted the illness and died on Feb. 6, according to hospital officials. Multiple other health care workers in China have contracted the virus as well, according to Chinese officials.

There is some case-by-case decision-making in assessing risk, Rudman said. Whether a health professional was wearing gloves, a mask or other protective equipment, and what kind of interaction they had with the patient, all factor in.

And because they work with people who are sick and may be at higher risk from infection, health care workers may be asked to take more extreme precautions. Santa Clara County’s public health department asked at least five people to go on two weeks of paid leave after a man who visited the hospital where they worked later tested positive for the virus.

Some investigations are easier than others. A coronavirus case recently diagnosed in Wisconsin involved someone who got off a plane from Beijing, went straight to a medical facility while wearing a mask, and has been isolated at home since, according to Public Health Madison & Dane County.

Earlier cases were not so straightforward. One factor that has made the investigations particularly challenging is confusion over whether the virus can be spread by an infected person who is not showing symptoms. Health departments say that, given the uncertainty, they are taking a cautious approach and looking for any contacts going back three days before symptoms started. “Fortunately, we have so few cases, so we can do that,” Rudman said.

Rudman declined to say how many people are being monitored in Santa Clara, but noted that having so few cases has meant she and her colleagues have had time to be methodical about who might be at risk. She hopes that will provide comfort to others in the community.

As for the rest of us, even casual contact with an infected person, such as crossing paths on the street or briefly being in the same room, is thought not to pose much of a risk, though CDC officials stress there is still a lot to learn about the new virus. And the best protection in those instances also can ward off other unwanted visitors this time of year: flu and colds. The latter are often the result of four other coronaviruses that are responsible for a good chunk of winter illnesses.