U.S. hospitals should prepare "financially and operationally" to contend with a potentially deadly outbreak of the Wuhan virus that has already killed six people and sickened hundreds more in China, a major accounting firm said Tuesday.
Although the respiratory virus is in its early stages, it has already left a mounting human and economic toll, wrote Matt Wolf, who leads RSM's healthcare valuation consulting group. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first domestic case of the virus, technically called 2019 Novel Coronavirus, in a Washington state patient who had recently returned from Wuhan, China. Nearly 300 people have contracted the virus in China, although Imperial College London estimates the number of cases has been much higher.
Wolf compared the outbreak to the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus in 2002 and 2003, which spooked investors and prompted Chinese markets to plunge. He also cited the Ebola virus, which spread through West Africa from 2014 to 2016, killing more than 11,000 people. Ebola also killed 11 people in the U.S.
U.S. hospitals spent more than $360 million preparing for potential Ebola cases, with those designated as frontline centers shouldering more of the costs. In the case of the Wuhan virus, the potential ripple effect is far bigger, Wolf wrote.
"An epidemic in a country like China, where foreign citizens are more likely to travel to the U.S. for leisure, only magnifies the problem," he said.
At the height of the Ebola epidemic in 2015, more than 2.6 million tourists visited the U.S. from China, compared with slightly more than 500,000 from all of Africa, Wolf said.
Beyond China and the U.S., the Wuhan virus has spread to South Korea, Japan and Thailand, Wolf wrote. The Lunar New Year starts on Jan. 25, which means many people will take time off and travel.
Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced Monday it had changed its electronic prompts so that any patients entering the hospital, emergency department or clinics with a fever or respiratory symptoms will be asked whether they have been to China recently or have had contact with anyone who has. Patients at risk of having the virus will be placed in isolation, said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases and preventive medicine at VUMC and a member of its infection control committee.
"It should offer reassurance to people in the community that we're aware of the events that are unfolding in China and now elsewhere, including the U.S., and that we're bringing that sense of prevention and precaution home," he said.
Schaffner said he would be surprised if other hospitals were not implementing similar protocols.
The CDC first warned medical providers to look out for patients with respiratory symptoms and a history of travel to Wuhan, China. The agency is developing guidance for testing and managing the illness, including at home. The CDC plans to distribute a diagnostic test soon that will speed up detection time. Currently, testing must take place at the CDC.
On Friday, the CDC implemented public health screenings at airports in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles and plans to add them in Chicago and Atlanta this week.
Originally thought to spread only from animal-to-animal, the CDC says there is growing evidence that limited person-to-person spread is happening as well, similar to how the SARS virus spread.
"It's unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people," the agency said.
Given there have been six deaths in China out of hundreds of infections, Schaffner said the Wuhan virus' mortality rate is so far much lower than that of SARS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), both of which were sometimes as high as 50%. On the other hand, U.S. hospitals will see thousands of flu patients and many deaths from the illness, he said.
"Familiarity, if it doesn't breed contempt, it sometimes breeds nonchalance," Schaffner said.