MERS patient in good condition, could soon go on home isolation

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MUNSTER (May 5, 2014) – A man infected with a rare respiratory illness from overseas is in good condition and continues to improve, health officials said Monday.

During a news conference in Munster, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Community Hospital and the Indiana State Department of Health provided updates on the case, which is believed to be the first U.S. occurrence of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Gov. Mike Pence also spoke Monday morning.

According to Dr. Daniel Feikin, an epidemiologist with the CDC, the relatively new nature of MERS has proven a challenge for healthcare workers.

“We’re being very vigilant and will continue to do testing” because of the newness of the illness, Feiken said.

MERS originated in the Arabian Peninsula and can be spread from person to person. Feiken repeatedly said that people in “casual contact” with the patient were not at risk. Transmission requires close contact, which he defined as “sustained physical contact” with someone infected with the virus.

Feiken said MERS, which belongs to the same coronavirus family as SARS, likely developed in 2011. The first cases were identified in 2012. Because of the relatively new nature of the virus, the CDC is working to educate local health departments and the general public about it.

The incubation period for MERS is typically about five days, according to Dr. Alan Kumar, chief medical officer for Munster’s Community Hospital. In rare cases, the incubation period could last up to 14 days. Those in close contact with the patient, including Community Hospital employees, are on home isolation for two weeks. Their tests have come back negative.

The patient, described as a healthcare worker who lives and works in Saudi Arabia, came to the U.S. because he has family here, officials said. Kumar said he’s “improving every day,” adding that no patients were at risk once the patient was admitted to the hospital. The patient worked at a hospital in Riyadh but couldn’t recall having direct contact with anyone infected with MERS.

Gov. Mike Pence said he was “confident that we are well along the way” to containing the virus. He said he was grateful to those who “acted swiftly” to contain any potential danger.

“Hoosiers can be assured that we will continue to exercise an abundance of caution,” Pence said. “We will remain vigilant and continue to monitor those who have come in close contact with the patient.”

He said he was “relieved and thankful” that the man was improving.

“Here in Indiana, health comes first. (There is) no higher priority than the health of our people,” Pence said.

The governor lauded the coordination of local, state and federal authorities, sentiments echoed by officials at Community Hospital, the Indiana State Department of Health and CDC.

“MERS picked the wrong hospital in the wrong state in the wrong country to try to get a foothold,” said Dr. William VanNess II, Indiana State Health commissioner.

Kumar said he expected the patient to go on home isolation once his hospital stay is complete. He came in on his own accord because he wasn’t feeling well; the symptoms arose after he’d arrived in Chicago from Saudi Arabia. Kumar said the fact that the patient had been to the Arabian Peninsula allowed doctors to quickly diagnose him.

Travelers to the Middle East should be especially aware of the virus, health officials said. Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms within days of arriving home should contact their health professional so they can get tested.

FOX59 tweets from Monday’s news conference: