Just as the number of 2019 novel coronavirus cases worldwide was being reported as having spread to 29 countries, Westchester County officials announced on Feb. 18 that 26 people who had recently returned to Westchester from overseas were under voluntary quarantine for the disease. The virus is now designated as COVID-19.
The government of China reported dramatic increases in the number of cases a few days before the Westchester announcement, leading to speculation that the officially reported Chinese numbers represented undercounting of the epidemic.
A website in China operated by Chinese conglomerate Tencent displayed a page tracking the situation and reported 154,023 cases in China with 24,589 deaths. Those numbers were taken down after having been displayed for a few hours and were replaced with official Chinese government numbers.
Sherlita Amler, the commissioner of health for Westchester County, told a news conference at the County Office Building in White Plains, “These people are not ill but we still have to monitor them.” She said, “These individuals are all quarantined. This is a voluntary quarantine, most in their homes.”
Amler did not reveal the names of the quarantined individuals nor the communities where they are located.
Amler said that the Westchester individuals may have been exposed to the disease during their overseas travels to countries where cases of the coronavirus have occurred. She emphasized that none was showing symptoms of the coronavirus as of the time of the news conference.
The medical community believes that a person can be cleared as not having contracted COVID-19 if he or she does not show symptoms after 14 days have elapsed from the time of presumed exposure to a carrier of the virus.
Fourteen days is the incubation period for the virus, although a report in the “New England Journal of Medicine” said doctors in Germany believe a Chinese woman on a business trip to an automotive supply company in Germany passed the virus to colleagues before she had symptoms. Amler said the symptoms of coronavirus are a runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat and fever.
“Those are all symptoms similar to what you might have if you have influenza,” Amler said.
“The county is making sure that the individuals have everything they need to maintain their separation, their isolation within their homes; food, medication, whatever they need. We’re ensuring that they have these things. We have established a way to do video conferencing with most of the individuals using smartphones,” she said. “Should they become ill or need to be transported, public safety and emergency services would oversee that and make sure that the right equipment with trained staff was being used.”
Amler said that airplanes arriving in the U.S. from China are being accepted at only a dozen airports where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal government agencies have established screening facilities. Newark and John F. Kennedy international airports are two of them.
“At those airports there are CDC staff that are stationed there and they are interviewing people. Anyone sick, of course, would immediately be evaluated by the CDC. The CDC is asking them a variety of questions. And then anyone who has had a travel history within 14 days would be directed to their local health department. Their name would be provided to the local health department. We would be asked then to contact them to verify that travel history and make sure they are not ill and we will observe them for 14 days from their last day of departure from the area of concern,” Amler said.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer reiterated that none of the 26 people being observed had been taken ill by the disease.
“What we’re all trying to do is measured, intelligent responses to this,” Latimer said. “This is serious but it has not reached a stage by which undue speculation is warranted.”
“Certainly, this is a worldwide concern, so Westchester County is really a small part of the universe that has been affected by it. But we are tasked through our department of health with responding professionally and quickly to deal with those incidents that occur here,” Latimer said. “It’s very important for us to understand that there are two widespread concerns here. The first is the spread of the virus; and the second is the spread of the virus fear and unnecessary panic.”
Latimer said that while a lot of information and opinions may be flying around, some accurate and some false, especially on the internet, “This is a time for sober realities where speculation, where projections of things that aren’t backed up necessarily by fact, where going on the internet and ‘I heard this,’ and ‘I saw this,’ is not only unhelpful but it can be negative,” he said.
“It can create a climate of fear that isn’t warranted. If this situation advances, we will speak clearly as a county government in every single communication that we have. We’re not going to hide anything. But by the same token, we’re not going to turn this into a circus because we will do more damage to this county and this country if we do.”