An email to professors Wednesday at the Institute of American Indian Arts sparked concern that a student there had contracted the 2019 novel coronavirus — but state health officials said it was a false alarm.
“New Mexico does not have any cases of novel coronavirus at this time,” Mari Anixter, a spokeswoman at the New Mexico Department of Health, wrote in a statement Wednesday. “Keep in mind that the common cold is a coronavirus, too, but not the  novel coronavirus.”
State health officials said they are on heightened alert for any cases of the deadly respiratory virus affecting more than 6,000 people worldwide, but they added the chances of contracting the disease are remote if you haven’t traveled to the region of China where it began.
Dr. Michael Landen, the Department of Health’s state epidemiologist, said the first factor to consider is travel to China — particularly the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak was first identified.
“If a person [had] a cough, shortness of breath and fever and they had recently been in Wuhan, we would be concerned about that person and interview them,” Landen said.
He said the person would be subject to routine viral testing and any hospital would coordinate with the department for lab testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it will be able to make a test for the virus available to state health departments in a few weeks.
The CDC has confirmed five cases of the virus in the U.S. Coronaviruses, named for their crown shapes, are a family of viruses that can make both people and animals sick, according to the CDC website.
The most recently confirmed novel coronavirus case was in Arizona on Sunday. There also is a case in Washington state and one in Illinois, as well as two in California. All of the people with confirmed cases previously traveled to Wuhan.
The rumor of a case in Santa Fe started when a student emailed instructors that she needed to be excused from classes because she had “coronavirus,” said Eric Davis, an IAIA spokesman.
The student was ill, Davis said, and went to Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center for treatment. He added no one from the hospital told the student she was sick with 2019 novel coronavirus.
Landen said the department is on daily calls with other health departments across the nation and has reached out to hospitals to provide them with resources. Epidemiologists are on call at all times — not just for coronavirus but for concerns about maladies such as whooping cough, measles and other infectious diseases.
He said the first line of defense is open lines of communication between the Department of Health, hospitals and other providers.
“Our plan with coronavirus is if we get a case in New Mexico, we’re going to try to make sure we know of everyone who had close contact with that particular case, and that we work with them to make sure they don’t [become] sick,” Landen said. “As long as we can focus on each case, we can minimize exposure for each case diagnosed.”
Arturo Delgado, a spokesman for Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, said the hospital is coordinating with the Department of Health and the CDC. Delgado said no patients have said they were concerned they had the virus.
A spokeswoman for Presbyterian Healthcare Services declined to comment.
Landen said that while the department is taking the outbreak very seriously, he wants to keep it in perspective.
“Influenza is a much bigger risk to New Mexicans than novel coronavirus,” he said.
The department said 52 pneumonia- and influenza-related deaths have been reported in New Mexico during the 2019-20 flu season, one of them a 1-year-old in Roosevelt County.
Nationally, influenza-associated symptoms have killed 8,200 people this flu season and hospitalized more than 140,000, according to the CDC.
In China, the death toll from coronavirus was at 170 Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
As of Wednesday, CDC officials said 165 samples from 36 states were being tested; five had come back positive, and 68 had tested negative.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a phone briefing Wednesday that CDC checks had been expanded to 20 points of entry around the country.
She said the symptoms of the virus are very similar to influenza and other viral respiratory diseases, and the major risk factor remains travel to China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, or close contact with those who have traveled there.
“Right now there is no sign in the United States that we have broader community transmission,” Messonnier said. “We don’t think most Americans need to be especially concerned because we judge the risk in the American public to be low.”