Coronavirus in Philly? Don’t panic, say officials as they test exchange student

A Chinese exchange student is being tested for coronavirus because he is exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Philadelphia health officials say: don’t panic.

William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia (Google Maps)

William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia (Google Maps)

The Philadelphia Health Department is working with officials from William Penn Charter School, the Pennsylvania Health Department and regional county health departments to investigate a possible case of the coronavirus in a Chinese exchange student.

Penn Charter is currently hosting a group of 18 exchange students and three chaperones from China. They arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday, and the Philadelphia Health Department was contacted on Friday because the student was exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Because the students had traveled through Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, the CDC required the student be tested for the virus. Lab results are expected back within days.

A new strain of coronavirus was first identified by health authorities in Wuhan, the capital city of central China’s Hubei Province, and then quickly spread across the country. More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed in China, with 80 deaths there according to Chinese health officials.

The exchange students are not from Wuhan, but passed through there to change planes.

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Symptoms for the coronavirus are flu-like, so Philadelphia Health Department spokesperson James Garrow stressed that it’s just as likely that the student has the flu, or another respiratory virus common in winter months.

“We’ve already had six deaths from the flu here in Philadelphia, and people still resist getting the flu shot,” said Garrow. “So if there’s a respiratory virus that folks should be concerned about in Philadelphia, it’s not novel coronavirus, it’s the flu.”

Garrow said the student’s symptoms were not severe and he is being kept out of school in the host family’s home where he is staying in Montgomery County. Other host families of the exchange students met with school officials, and parents at Penn Charter have been notified.

At this time, all the other Chinese exchange students, most of whom are around 15 years old, are still attending classes, according to school officials. They are scheduled to stay in Philadelphia until Feb. 4.

Garrow acknowledged that even if this illness ends up being something other than coronavirus, new cases are being confirmed each day, and it’s entirely possible a case will come up in Philadelphia. But even in that event, Garrow said the health department would issue the same recommendations it does during the winter months to avoid contracting any respiratory illness: Cover your hands when you cough or sneeze; wash your hands; stay home if you’re sick.

As of Sunday, five cases of the virus had been confirmed in the United States, all in travelers who passed through Wuhan. They are in Arizona, California, Illinois and Washington. No deaths have been recorded outside of China.

The CDC is not screening for the virus at the Philadelphia airport, and there are no direct flights from Wuhan to PHL.

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