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Health district monitoring Clark County residents for coronavirus

Updated February 10, 2020 - 1:19 pm

The Southern Nevada Health District is monitoring an undisclosed number of Clark County residents who recently returned from China for the new coronavirus, the public health agency said Monday.

These residents have shown no signs of the virus, which produces respiratory symptoms that can be mild or life-threatening. However, under a week-old presidential proclamation, U.S. citizens returning from mainland China are subject to monitoring by health officials and are required to stay home for 14 days.

“It doesn’t matter your race or ethnicity,” said Dr. Fermin Leguen, acting chief health officer for the district. “If you’ve been in China for the last 14 days, you’ll be asked to stay home if you’re without symptoms.”

The monitoring is one of the latest steps aimed at stopping the spread of a virus that has killed more than 1,000 people, nearly all in China, and infected more than 42,500, including a dozen in the U.S.

Under the new federal rules, U.S. citizens returning from mainland China are required to enter the country through one of 11 airports; the nearest one to Las Vegas is Los Angeles International Airport. The travelers are then screened for signs of the virus. Those with a fever, cough or trouble breathing will be evaluated at the airport by staff with the Centers with Disease Control and Prevention and taken to a medical facility for further evaluation and care, according to guidance on the CDC’s website.

Travelers without symptoms are allowed to continue to their destination. Once home, they’ll be contacted by local health authorities regarding monitoring.

“After arrival at your final destination, you will be asked to monitor your health for a period of 14 days from the time you left China,” the CDC states. “During that time, you should stay home and limit interactions with others as much as possible.”

‘Random observations’

The district is in contact by phone twice a day with each person being monitored. “So far, everybody we’ve approached has been in compliance with this,” Leguen said, adding that the main purpose is to identify whether they are experiencing any respiratory symptoms or fever.

The district also performs “random observations” of those being monitored, which might involve going to a person’s home and observing for a period of time “just to make sure (they’re) not going out.”

If an individual fails to comply, the health district can go before a judge and within a matter of hours secure a court order mandating compliance, Leguen said.

Legun refused to say how many Clark County residents were being monitored, calling the number a “moving target.”

“We don’t want to mislead the public,” he said.

Kristen Nordlund, who works in the public affairs office of the CDC, said she could not provide a figure for how many recent travelers are being monitored nationwide.

Mandatory quarantines

But she said that roughly 800 recent travelers to China’s Hubei province, the center of the outbreak, are under mandatory quarantine at five military bases across the the U.S.

The rules for travelers returning from Hubei are more stringent than for those returning from other parts of mainland China. An initial planeload of 195 travelers who had visited Hubei, who have been under mandatory quarantine at March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, California, are scheduled to end their quarantine period on Tuesday, Nordlund said.

Foreign nationals who have visited China in the past 14 days currently may not enter the U.S. at all.

The purpose of monitoring and quarantines is to keep people who might have been exposed to an illness under observation for the illness’ incubation period, which in the case of the new coronavirus is thought to be 14 days.

In recent years, monitoring was done across the country for people returning from Africa during an Ebola outbreak in 2014, noted Brian Labus, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UNLV. Leguen said that the health district currently monitors people with cases of tuberculosis and with other communicable diseases, and in the case of tuberculosis, may require them to stay at home.

However, health authorities said that the last time there was a mandatory quarantine, such as the current one at the military bases, was 50 years ago to combat smallpox.

“We try to use the least restrictive means possible,” Labus said. “It’s not like they’re criminals,” he added about the people under monitoring or quarantine for the new coronavirus. “And they’re not even sick.

“It’s a tricky area. We have to balance the risk to the community and people’s liberties. That’s always going to be a challenging thing to balance out.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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