A Chinese exchange student at William Penn Charter School who fell ill does not have coronavirus, a respiratory illness that broke out in China earlier this month, but a new potential case is being investigated in Philadelphia, the city’s Department of Public Health announced Tuesday.
The new case reported to the city Tuesday relates to an individual who began experiencing respiratory virus symptoms after being in China and sought treatment in Philadelphia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that anyone who experiences flu-like symptoms — a fever, cough, difficulty breathing — after traveling to China be tested for coronavirus. The city health department could not say whether the individual was a local resident or a visitor, or give the individual’s age.
James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, urged people to remain calm and maintain perspective about the situation.
“The health department feels that the risk of infection from novel coronavirus to the average Philadelphian is very low. People who have recently traveled to China are at the greatest risk,” Garrow said in a statement.
The United States has had about 110 possible coronavirus cases in 26 states — only five of which have been confirmed. Of the 110, 32 have tested negative and the remainder have not yet been resolved, the CDC said Monday. The U.S. has not reported any deaths due to coronavirus.
The influenza virus remains a much bigger threat, having killed at least 8,000 people so far this season — including six in Philadelphia.
Yet amid rising concern about the novel illness, Penn Charter announced Monday night it was canceling its Chinese student exchange program.
The Penn Charter student who tested negative for coronavirus was among 18 who arrived at the high school last week, along with three chaperones, for a two-week exchange. The student began to feel ill late last week and was tested for possible exposure to coronavirus because the group had a connecting flight through Wuhan, where the outbreak originated.
The student has been in isolation with a chaperone and is beginning to feel better, a school spokesperson said.
“We regret that this program has been complicated, and now terminated, because of events that were beyond the control of the people who were excited for all the learning that this cultural exchange had promised,” head of school Darryl J. Ford wrote in an email to Penn Charter parents Monday night.
That was just the start of the fallout from the potential coronavirus exposure. Schools canceled athletic events with Penn Charter teams, a public school bus driver tried to deny transportation to the school’s students, and a medical professional canceled an appointment with a student, citing coronavirus, according to an email from Sharon Sexton, the school’s director of marketing communications.
The independent Quaker school, which teaches pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, was also concerned that an increase in absenteeism was disrupting students’ education.
As the test results clearing the child of having coronavirus arrived, the exchange students were to take a bus to New York before flying home to China on Wednesday.
“This is not the experience we wanted for them,” Ford said.
Fear about coronavirus has also led to canceled Chinese New Year celebrations, including one planned by the Main Line Chinese Culture Center.
“The health department has made NO recommendations for folks to respond in this manner, and are acutely aware of the damage that they can do to those excluded. As part of our ongoing messaging strategy, we hope to begin to address issues of stigma and unfair exclusion,” Garrow said in an email.
The health department recommends getting a flu shot. That shot won’t protect against the coronavirus, but the recommendations for avoiding the respiratory illness are otherwise the same as those for staying healthy during flu and cold season: wash your hands thoroughly, cover up when you cough or sneeze, avoid touching your face, avoid contact with people who are sick, and stay home if you don’t feel well.