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Unmasked truth: No coronavirus in NM, but plenty of flu cases

Ap Malaysia China Outbreak Xvt101

Wearing a protective suit and mask, a health official on Thursday waits to examine passengers aboard a cruise ship in Port Klang, Malaysia, who may have contracted the coronavirus, or COVID-19. (Vincent Thian, Associated Press)

With photos and videos of mask-wearing citizens coming out of Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, it’s not surprising that the New Mexico Department of Health has had reports of concerned people here buying protective masks, said state epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen.

That, however, is unnecessary because, for one thing, “there are no reported cases of coronavirus in New Mexico, and if there were, the focus would be on putting masks on people with coronavirus to prevent virus-infected droplets from spreading if they cough or sneeze – it would not be to prevent coronavirus in the general public,” he said.

Far more realistically, people should be concerned about catching the flu.

“In terms of risk to the general public, we have no cases of coronavirus in New Mexico and lots of cases of influenza. The chance of getting someone sick with influenza is so much greater than the chance of getting someone sick with coronavirus at this time.”

Measures more sensible than wearing a mask, Landen said, are for people to “wash their hands and cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing, and don’t go to school or work.”

The cause of the coronavirus outbreak has not been determined. Also in flux is the number of people who have contracted it, with estimates on Thursday varying from more than 40,000 to nearly 60,000, according to news reports.

What is known is that the vast majority of the cases are in China’s Hubei Province and its capital, Wuhan. About 1,355 of those diagnosed in China have died, most of them elderly or people whose health had been compromised by chronic medical conditions.

The largest cluster of coronavirus cases outside of China is on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been docked in Yokohama, Japan. Of the 3,700 passengers and crew aboard, 218 people were confirmed to have the illness as of Thursday.

Only 15 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the United States, mostly among citizens who contracted it while in China, Landen said. None of them has died.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that include severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, and the common cold, Landen said.

The current iteration of the coronavirus, also called COVID-19, has a number of possible symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, runny nose, headache, sore throat and a general feeling of being unwell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms, which may appear in as few as two days and up to 14 days after exposure, can range from mild to severe, resulting in death.

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