By Anne Blythe and Rose Hoban
North Carolina has its first case of COVID-19, the new coronavirus that has spread around the globe since late last year, causing travel restrictions, quarantines, stock market plunges as well as public health scares and planning of epidemic proportions.
State health officials reported on Tuesday afternoon that a person in Wake County had tested positive in a lab test, conducted by North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health.
The state lab, located in Raleigh, has only been able to run diagnostic testing for COVID-19 for about a day. So, the results have been submitted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lab for further testing and confirmation.
The person, who was in Washington and exposed at a long-term care facility, health officials said, is doing well and in isolation at home somewhere in Wake County. State health officials declined to give any details about the person, including gender or age.
The person flew back to North Carolina from the Seattle area on a commercial flight. State Health and Human Services Sec. Mandy Cohen said local health officials are doing “contact tracing” with people who may have been exposed to the patient during transit.
“That includes going back to making sure folks on that flight are made aware,” Cohen said. “That work is just beginning.”
“I know that people are worried about this virus, and I want to assure North Carolinians our state is prepared,” Gov. Roy Cooper in a statement. “Our task force and state agencies are working closely with local health departments, health care providers and others to quickly identify and respond to cases that might occur.”
The release from Cooper’s office states that the case is an isolated one and notes that COVID-19 is currently not widespread in North Carolina.
Planning meets reality
North Carolina public health officials have spent months planning for the possibility that someone in this state would test positive for COVID-19. They’ve developed elaborate responses for a range of scenarios.
In early February, state health director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson issued an order setting out requirements for reporting any suspected or actual cases to the state.
It’s a mandate for physicians or labs to contact the state when “novel coronavirus infection is reasonably suspected to exist. The physician shall make the report to the local health director of the county or district in which the patient resides.”
In mid-February, shortly after some of the early cases were reported in the United States, Zack Moore, the state epidemiologist, told North Carolina lawmakers that health care workers across the state were preparing for the worst while hoping they had overplanned.
“There are a lot of uncertainties so we need to acknowledge that we could end up with widespread transmission in North Carolina and across the country,” Moore said at the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services.
In announcing the case today, state health officials tried to tamp down any urge to panic.
“We have been preparing and continue to prepare to respond to COVID-19 or the new coronavirus,” Cohen, said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon to announce the first case. “We put together an aggressive containment strategy, of rapidly identifying suspected cases, testing them and doing any contact tracing.”
Health care facilities have been stockpiling supplies for health care workers and those diagnosed with the illness. Quarantine procedures have been in place for years and labs equipped to test for the virus have protocols for keeping the strain isolated.
Gov. Cooper created a task force in February to monitor the infectious disease as it spread from China across the continents.
The United States reported its first case of COVID-19 in late January. The first death in this country was reported Feb. 29 in Washington, where state officials confirmed a man with “underlying conditions” had succumbed to illness related to the virus.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses transmitted between animals and humans.
Symptoms can range from the coughs and runny noses accompanying a common cold to the more severe fevers, aches and thick flu-like congestion that can lead to respiratory pneumonia.
In most cases, people do not develop severe illness, according to the World Health Organization.
Past coronavirus outbreaks
MERS, or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, are coronaviruses that caused outbreaks that moved to this country.
COVID-19, the newest coronavirus, was detected late last year in Wuhan City in China’s Hubei Province. The genome sequence shows it to be a betacoronavirus, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has its origins in bats, similar to MERS and SARS.
The CDC has been keeping track of the COVID-19 spread since its detection.