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CDC backs down on MERS threat: What does it mean?

Editor’s note: This column was first published on HCPro’s OSHA Healthcare Advisor blog on May 30, 2014.

By: John Palmer

By now, you’ve likely heard that the CDC backed down yesterday on its official number of U.S. cases of confirmed MERS patients. This may confuse a lot of people in the healthcare world—especially those in the smaller medical clinics who are concerned that they may be on the front lines in dealing with any future victims of this mysterious new respiratory illness from the Middle East.

The CDC now officially says there are only two confirmed cases, down from three last week. The third was a man who was a business associate of the first patient, a healthcare worker who fell ill in Indiana after traveling from the Middle East. This third patient apparently had a two-hour business meeting with the first guy, but he never got sick. He was tested preliminarily, and after more tests he never got sick, and that’s why they backed down on the case count.

Here’s a link to the official CDC press release regarding the MERS situation: http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0528-mers.html

I had a lengthy phone call yesterday with Dr. J. Todd Weber, a chief of prevention and response at the CDC, and he gave me their official stance on what’s going on and what healthcare providers should be doing to prepare.

MERS is a coronavirus that originated in camels and over the last two years has somehow made the jump to humans. For the time being, the worst of it seems to be isolated to the Arabian Peninsula and it seems to be affecting mainly healthcare workers who are dealing with patients.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it reportedly kills about 30% of its victims. Hardly a common cold. A high death count like that brings back memories of the 1918 flu epidemic, the Swine flu and Bird flu, and the big SARS outbreak that devastated Toronto.

The even more good news, Weber told me, is that this is not the flu. I am no virologist here, but Dr. Weber says a Coronavirus lacks the genetic ability to mutate the way the Influenza virus does – which explains why the flu can make a jump so quickly from animals to humans.

What does all this mean for you, the healthcare provider? Do what you always do. Be on the lookout for patients who present with both fever and upper respiratory infections. And make sure you play detective and ask questions. Did the patient travel to the Middle East within the last 14 days, or have contact with someone who did?

And as always—practice good infection control measures. Isolate those who are sick, disinfect your surfaces, and wear your PPE such as masks and gloves.

Dr. Weber stopped short of saying we are out of the woods—a good doctor never does that. There’s always a chance this will find a way to mutate quicker, and as we have seen, the virus can travel on airplanes to other places in the world. But panic never helps, and the CDC did the right thing by backing down their previous warnings.