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Harvard University Health Services ‘Closely Monitoring’ Global Coronavirus Outbreak

Giang T. Nguyen is the director of Harvard University Health Services.
Giang T. Nguyen is the director of Harvard University Health Services.
By Fiona K. Brennan and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

As cases of a deadly coronavirus around the world increase, Harvard University Health Services Director Giang T. Nguyen said his office is monitoring the outbreak and planning for its potential impact on campus.

The coronavirus — a type of virus that can cause respiratory illness — broke out in Wuhan, China in December and has since infected over 800 people globally, killing 25. Chinese authorities put Wuhan on partial lockdown in response to the rapid spread of the virus, which has now been recorded in six Asian countries and — in one case — in the United States.

Nguyen wrote in an email to The Crimson that HUHS is monitoring the virus and preparing staff in the event that a Harvard affiliate contracts it.

“We are closely monitoring the situation with the novel coronavirus coming out of China,” Nguyen wrote. “While we have no indication that Massachusetts or the Harvard campus are affected, we are working diligently to ensure that our clinical staff are prepared in the event that someone presents to HUHS with symptoms and a clinical history that may indicate the novel coronavirus.”

In mid-January, a Washington man contracted the illness after returning from a trip to Wuhan. He is currently in good condition and is recovering in an isolated unit, according to the New York Times. No other cases of coronavirus have currently been reported in the United States.

Since doctors diagnosed the man, health officials have worked to alert anyone with whom he interacted while he traveled in China.

David C. Hooper, who serves as the chief of the Infection Control Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the spread of the virus to Massachusetts is unlikely but that health officials and doctors are still taking precautionary measures to ensure that they can quickly respond to any possible cases.

“Everyone is being cautious and putting in place procedures for identifying possible patients so that they can be appropriately isolated, to protect health care workers and others, and tested,” Hooper said. “The CDC is also developing test kits that will, at a later point, be deployed to all of the state health department laboratories.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention implemented public health entry screenings at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 17 in response to the coronavirus.

This week, the CDC also added entry health screenings at Atlanta International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Boston Logan International Airport is not screening passengers for the illness because there are no direct flights or connecting flights from Wuhan to Boston.

In a letter to health care providers sent Jan. 22, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health wrote that the risk posed by the coronavirus to Massachusetts residents is low.

“At this time, the risk to residents in Massachusetts is low,” the letter read. “CDC staff are screening passengers arriving from Wuhan into LAX, JFK and SFO which receive 74% of the flights from those areas.”

Despite international worries about the coronavirus, Nguyen said he believes Harvard affiliates should be more concerned about a less novel illness — the flu.

“As students arrive back to campus, we are most focused on keeping our community healthy and safe in the midst of flu season,” Nguyen wrote. “Although HUHS has not received indications to-date that Harvard University has experienced an unusual number of flu cases this winter, the number of reported cases in Massachusetts and across the country has begun to increase, as is customary for this time of year.”

—Staff writer Fiona K. Brennan can be reached at fiona.brennan@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @FionaBrennan23

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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