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CMA Wendy Kerley prepares the flu vaccine before inoculating the Getman family Friday, Jan. 3, 2019, at the Cordova Shot Nurse clinic on Germantown Rd. in Memphis, Tenn. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)

Tennessee health officials confirmed that the state has zero cases of the novel coronavirus as the total cases in the United States rose to 12 on Wednesday.

A Wisconsin resident who recently traveled to China was diagnosed with the new virus — becoming that state's first confirmed case. The virus was first detected in the central China city of Wuhan in December. Confirmed U.S. cases now include one from Wisconsin, six in California, one in Massachusetts, one in Washington state, one in Arizona and two in Chicago.

The new virus is a respiratory illness and member of the coronavirus family, which includes SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, both viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms mirror influenza and include fever, cough and shortness of breath that can lead to pneumonia.

"SARS and MERS were both coronaviruses, and we had an opportunity to learn from those. We don't yet have enough information to know if this virus is as bad. Certainly, right now, it doesn't seem as though it is," said Dr. Jay Sizemore, an infectious diseases specialist at Erlanger Health System, who acknowledged that some people question the validity of information coming from China.

Last week, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. The Trump administration responded by declaring a public health emergency in the U.S., restricting incoming flights from China and ordering the country's first mandatory quarantine in more than 50 years.

Dr. Paul Hendricks, Hamilton County health officer, told members of the Regional Health Council during a briefing Monday that officials are walking the "narrow line" between making people aware of the new virus and assuring them that their risk of contracting the illness in the United States is low.

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This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). (CDC via AP, File)

So far, the coronavirus has killed more than 500 people worldwide and has infected more than 28,000 people across 25 countries. Most of those who are infected live in China, and no deaths have occurred in the United States.

Meanwhile, influenza activity in the U.S. has risen for two consecutive weeks and killed a total of 68 children — including two in Hamilton County — this season, according to the latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The flu has been with us, everyone's used to it and even though it's much more common and much more deadly, it kind of fades into the background," Hendricks said. "If you're worried about [coronavirus], you haven't gotten your flu shot and aren't taking precautions to protect yourself from the flu, your priorities are a little misplaced."

The U.S. public health response to coronavirus is primarily focused on detecting new cases quickly and preventing further spread. Those with a history of travel from mainland China within 14 days of symptom onset, or any person — such as a health care worker — with symptoms who was in close contact with an infected person should be tested.

Aside from the 12 confirmed cases, 282 people had met the criteria for testing by the CDC, with 206 confirmed negative and 76 tests still pending. Although some of those tested have been from Tennessee, a spokesperson from the Tennessee Department of Health said the state is not reporting how many.

Sizemore said he's encouraged that out of all the people warranting investigation in the U.S., only a small number have tested positive.

"The U.S. has taken a very aggressive approach to try and prevent widespread virus in this country," he said, "and it seems like right now it's working."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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