Two suspected cases of the deadly illness coronavirus have been reported in Minnesota, sparking fears that a now-global epidemic which started in China could be close to hitting home.

In the wake of rising concerns over the virus, the Minnesota Department of Health issued an alert earlier this week urging care providers to alert authorities about any patients with respiratory symptoms or fevers who recently traveled in Wuhan, China. On Friday, Public Health officials announced a Chicago woman became the second U.S. patients diagnosed with the deadly virus. In Minnesota, two suspected cases of the virus were being sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing.

Rice County Public Health Clinic & Community Supervisor Sara Coulter said that people concerned about contracting the disease should wash their hands thoroughly with proper technique, using soap and scrubbing both hands for at least 20 seconds.

“The basic precautions about avoiding spread of germs from a respiratory disease remains the same,” Cover your cough, stay home if you’re sick and wash your hands.”

The new strain of coronavirus that’s raised so much concern in recent days is part of a group of viruses that can cause a range of symptoms, such as runny nose, cough, sore throat and fever. Some are mild, but others cases have lead to pneumonia.

Overall, the CDC says the risk of Coronavirus becoming a major epidemic in the U.S. is low, but there’s still a lot that researchers don’t know about the virus. Early research suggests it kills only about 2 to 3% of those infected, with higher fatality rates among seniors.

Coronaviruses are generally spread from person to person, usually by personal contact, coughing or sneezing or by touching a surface shortly after an infected person has. It isn’t yet clear how easily the virus spreads. Due to the illness, public health officials are strongly discouraging non-necessary travel to China. Experts believe that it can take up to two weeks for people to know they’re infected, giving ample time for a person to spread the virus once they return home.

Currently, there is no treatment for the virus, although effective tests exist to determine whether a person is infected. Dr. Frank Rhame, an infectious diseases specialist with Allina Health, which operates District One and Owatonna hospitals, said that it’s likely that more information is needed.

“It’s not an immediate risk, but it is unprecedented and scary,” he said. It’ll take awhile before it gets to Faribault, but it seems to be getting around.”

On Friday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a joint session with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to hear from public health experts about the coronavirus.

Officials say they’re very concerned about how quickly the disease is spreading. As of Friday, 63 cases have been reported across the country and two have been confirmed, the one in Illinois and another in Washington state.

The lead Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, went so far as to call for mandatory coronavirus screenings at his state’s Newark Liberty Airport, which handles thousands of international flights each year.

The Chinese government says the disease has infected more than 900 people and killed 26. Officials in Wuhan are scrambling to build a 1,000-bed hospital in order to treat those affected, and China is restricting travel for some 35 million people to control the disease’s spread.

China has been criticized for its lack of transparency, and some say they believe the crisis is much bigger than the government has claimed. A horrific video of the inside of Wuhan’s hospital went viral on Friday, only adding fuel to the fire.

Among those most critical of Beijing's response has been Sen. Rick Scott, a former health care executive. On Friday, the Florida Republican called on the Trump Administration to declare coronavirus a public health emergency.

“I don’t trust Communist China to coordinate in a transparent and efficient manner when it comes to combating the threat of the virus, so we have to do everything we can to protect Americans," he said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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