Health officials monitor outbreak of coronavirus, worry it will 'become more virulent'

MILWAUKEE -- Health officials are closely monitoring an outbreak caused by a new strain of coronavirus out of Wuhan, China. All transportation in that city is on lockdown for departing passengers as of Wednesday, Jan. 22 -- as the death toll from the virus has rapidly risen to 17 people.

This new strain of coronavirus is popping up in a growing number of countries. This week, the United States saw its first case in Washington State.

Since its outbreak in December, the new strain of coronavirus from China has infected more than 500 people worldwide. It is sparking fears of a possible pandemic.

"Fever, cough, runny nose, respiratory symptoms. But this one can progress to where there's more shortness of breath and actually a pneumonia," said Dr. Mary Beth Graham, an infectious disease specialist at Froedtert Hospital and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Dr. Mary Beth Graham

Dr. Graham said we have seen strains of coronavirus in the past. Both MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) were also caused by it. This strain is new.

"These viruses will change. They mutate and then they can become more virulent," Dr. Graham said.

Dr. Graham said with one case already confirmed in the U.S., she expects the virus could make its way to Wisconsin soon.

"And the reason is that we're on a global economy," Dr. Graham said.

Five U.S. airports are now screening passengers traveling from Wuhan, China -- including Chicago O'Hare International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

"It sounds magical, like they can go, 'Oh, you have this.' No, they're just checking people's temperatures when you get off the plane," Dr. Graham said.

Passengers with a fever might be quarantined, the doctor said. In the meantime, she urges healthy habits like frequent hand washing. Dr. Graham said there is actually another virus she is more concerned about at this time.

"It's common sense with regard to protecting yourself from common respiratory virus. This one in particular, unlikely, but I worry more about the flu," Dr. Graham said.

A spokeswoman at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport said because Milwaukee is not a port of entry airport, they are not screening passengers at this time; however, they will continue to follow guidelines when it comes to the coronavirus.