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First person tested in Maryland for coronavirus is negative as global cases grow to ‘emergency’

The Johns Hopkins Hospital staff train for a potential coronavirus epidemic.

The first person tested in Maryland for the novel coronavirus that has swept through China does not have the virus, state health officials reported Thursday.

The person, who was not identified but was in isolation at home, sparked days of concern about the new virus that has crept into the United States.

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A sixth U.S. case was reported Thursday in Chicago, the first transmitted person-to-person in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The other cases were reported in Arizona, California, Illinois and Washington state among people who had returned from travels to China.

The virus has sickened 9,692 so far, mostly in China, and led to 213 deaths, all in that country. But 18 other countries have confirmed infections, prompting the World Health Organization on Thursday to declare the virus a global public health emergency.

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The United States has not declared an emergency but on Thursday advised against all travel to China. The State Department’s travel advisory told Americans currently in China to consider departing using commercial means, and requested that all non-essential U.S. government personnel defer travel "in light of the novel coronavirus.”

State and local health departments in Maryland have been fielding calls in the past week, but only one person has met the criteria to be tested, which includes respiratory symptoms and travel to China.

“The risk in Maryland for coronavirus remains unchanged, it continues to be low risk," said Fran Phillips, deputy state health secretary for public health services, just before the health department posted the negative test results on its website. “We’ve done a lot of one-on-one interviews with people who want guidance."

News of the potential case in Maryland had led various medical facilities, educational institutions and businesses with international students or workforces to disseminate guidance from the CDC about monitoring for symptoms after travel and reporting them to medical providers or public health officials.

Towson University distributed a message around campus Thursday morning that said a professor would not return to classes for the time being “out of an abundance of caution” while a family member is tested for the coronavirus.

That family member was the person who tested negative in Maryland, the university said.

State health officials say they had not recommended anyone stay home if they did not meet the criteria to be tested. They did, however, ask people to monitor for respiratory symptoms and report changes to the local or state health department.

Phillips said health officials are still learning about the incubation period and when and how someone can pass the virus to someone else.

Marina Cooper, a Towson University spokeswoman, said officials there continue to monitor the situation but said the campus is operating normally. University travel to China has been suspended, and health officials have contacted international students from China and concluded there is “no information of any concern.”

Officials decided to notify the campus after the professor contacted the school’s health center to tell them about the family member’s potential infection. The decision to stay away from campus was made out of an abundance of caution, not because of outside instruction, Cooper said.

“We appreciate that the professor reached out to us proactively,” Cooper said. She said the university "wanted to be clear, transparent and take care of our campus community.”

Communication experts agree that information is helpful when there is an emerging health threat, but that officials should be careful not to raise unnecessary alarm.

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Generally during a health crisis people should look to a trusted source such as the CDC and not “random social media posts,” cautioned Ritu Agarwal, interim dean and director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“In a situation that is evolving as quickly as the one we are facing now, there is a danger here, a lot of misinformation lurking around,” she said. “Look to the one trusted and credible source of information.”

Guodong Gao, a professor and co-director of the center, said people should be “data-savvy” and get context. Numbers can be scary and even deceiving alone, he said.

For example, there are more than 8,000 international coronavirus cases, many in the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, but the city’s population is more than 11 million. And there were almost 11,000 lab-confirmed cases of the flu last week in the United States and 93,000 so far this season, according to the CDC.

He said Americans still might be more afraid of the coronavirus because it’s new, and flu happens every year, evoking “alarm fatigue.”

This is not to say that the coronavirus won’t become more a more serious threat here, they said.

The CDC and other authorities have “done a good job pushing out information,” Agarwal said. “We have really smart scientists working on this problem and they understand how to walk a fine line that keeps the public informed and doesn’t create unnecessary panic among lay people. .. We’ll be watching to see that any new information that is relevant is pushed out, and that they are verifying the veracity of the information before it’s pushed out.”

Officials at the CDC are quick to say they are still learning about the coronavirus, which is a family of viruses that includes the common cold. This virus is the third serious outbreak of a coronavirus in 18 years, after severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in 2012.

CDC officials say they don’t know how big an outbreak there will be in the United States because they aren’t yet sure how easily the virus spreads. They said they anticipated it would be spread among people in close contact in the United States because SARS and MERS caused some person-to-person spread, largely in health care workers and family members in close contact with an infected person.

People in China are believed to have been infected by animals, likely bats.

“Given what we’ve seen in China and other countries with the novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected some person-to-person spread in the U.S.,” Dr. Robert R. Redfield, CDC director, said in a statement. “We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low.”

Nonetheless, the CDC said it has been preparing for infections for weeks. There are 92 potential cases being investigated in 36 states.

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Cody Boteler contributed to this article.

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