Westchester County officials reported yesterday that 26 people within the county are being monitored for possible exposure to the novel coronavirus but they are not sick and pose no threat to public safety.
That announcement was made during a Tuesday afternoon briefing in White Plains where Health Commissioner Dr. Sherlita Amler appeared with County Executive George Latimer and other county officials to provide an update on the precautions being taken in Westchester.
Through Tuesday, there have been no cases of the novel coronavirus, referred to in healthcare circles as COVID-19, in New York State and just 15 have been reported throughout the United States.
“We currently have travelers that have come back into the county from areas of the world where COVID-19 cases have occurred,” Amler explained. “These people are not ill but we still have to monitor them.”
Amler explained that a quarantine is for individuals who may have been exposed to the virus while isolation is reserved for those who are sick.
The 26 individuals, whose identities and locations are being withheld for privacy reasons, have voluntarily agreed to be quarantined at home until the 14-day incubation period for the virus is over, Amler said. They have shown no symptoms and will not be tested unless symptoms appear, she said.
Arrangements have been made to have food, medication and other basic items brought to them for the remainder of the quarantine.
Symptoms for COVID-19 are virtually identical to the more typical strains of influenza – coughing, sneezing, a sore throat or fever, Amler said. It is most commonly spread through coughing or sneezing but doesn’t travel very far, typically no more than six feet, she said.
There’s no way to tell the difference between COVID-19 and other strains of virus.
“But what you want to ask, have you traveled to China or have you traveled to any region of the world where there are evolving cases of this novel coronavirus and have you been exposed to anyone who’s been diagnosed or to anyone who came from those areas that was ill?” Amler said. “The travel history is very, very important, and particularly for individuals who’ve traveled in that area for the last 14 days and developed symptoms.”
To date, 29 countries have been identified as having reported cases, Amler said. However, more than 72,000 of the 73,328 cases reported worldwide as of Tuesday have been in China, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control website (https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/novel-coronavirus-china). A complete list of the countries that have reported cases, including many in Asia, are listed on that website, which is updated daily.
Anyone with a travel history to one of the areas where there have been cases within the last 14 days would be put in contact with their local health departments, which is how the county learned of the 26 people in Westchester, Amler said.
Precautions include frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or with a hand sanitizer, she said. Coughing or sneezing should be done into the arm and not the hands.
Finally, if anyone hasn’t gotten their flu shot for the season, they should be vaccinated, Amler said. There are still vaccines available, including at the county health clinics in White Plains and Yonkers every Tuesday and Friday through the end of February, she said.
Latimer said he and his administration did not want to alarm the public but felt it was important to provide accurate information rather than run the risk of having “the spread of the virus of fear and unnecessary panic.”
“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,” Latimer said. “It can create a climate of fear that is unwarranted.”