As coronavirus outbreak spreads, Trump and Georgia companies respond

At first, it was a cluster of cases, hundreds of miles west of Shanghai. But, as the days ticked by in January, a never-before-seen coronavirus spread to other parts in China and around the globe. The parents of Alex Everett shifted from monitoring the situation from afar to feeling a sense of urgency.

Everett, a 24-year-old from Johns Creek, was in the first days of an internship at an American accounting firm’s Shanghai office. But, as a family, the Everetts decided the risks were too great.

The college student, who underwent a liver transplant as a child and has an impaired immune system, made it back to Atlanta on Thursday, hours before the U.S. State Department issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory for China and two days before Delta announced it will suspend flights in and out of that country. Everett’s father, Patrick, said he and his wife were “on pins and needles, watching the clock.”

Worldwide more than 200 people have died and about 9,800 have been sickened in the coronavirus outbreak. Though the confirmed cases are mostly in China, the situation is now considered an international public health emergency, according to Chinese and World Health Organization data.

The Trump administration on Friday declared the outbreak, which started in Wuhan, China, a public health emergency in the United States and announced that foreign nationals who have been to China in the past two weeks will be temporarily barred from entering the U.S., unless they are the immediate family of American citizens and permanent residents.

Beginning Sunday, U.S. citizens returning home after recently traveling to the Hubei province of China will be quarantined up to 14 days. Those who have been to other parts of China within the past 14 days will be subject to “proactive entry screening” and up to 14 days of monitoring and self-quarantine.

Delta Air Lines has decided to suspend all U.S. to China flights beginning next Thursday through April 30, including its Atlanta-Shanghai route. Other airlines also said they would stop flying to the country.

»MORE: Atlanta-based CDC director named to Trump coronavirus task force

»MORE: Delta suspending all U.S. flights into China due to coronavirus

Flights still operating from China to the U.S. will be funneled to Atlanta and six other major airports for screening. Hartsfield-Jackson has quarantine facilities in the international terminal, on Concourse F.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the risk to the American public is “low” at this time. Because there are many unknowns about the virus, Azar said, officials want to ensure the risk remains low.

There are seven confirmed cases in the United States, none in Georgia.

Sandy Springs-based UPS is airlifting supplies of respirator masks and protective gear to China for use by health-care workers. The shipping giant said its UPS Foundation is working with two Georgia nonprofits — MAP International and MedShare — and providing free transport of the equipment.

UPS, which has more than 6,000 employees in China, also has suspended some pickups and deliveries in China and other countries in Asia amid the coronavirus outbreak. And it is deferring non-critical travel to Asia “out of an abundance of caution.”

Other Georgia-based companies have taken similar steps. Home Depot had already put a hold on all corporate travel to and from China. Cola-Cola said it suspended business travel to and from mainland China until the end of March. And Coca-Cola system offices and some factories in China were shuttered, though the company said it is working to re-open some of the facilities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered a federal quarantine for all 195 people who were evacuated earlier this week from Wuhan on a U.S. government-chartered flight for American consulate staffers and private U.S. citizens. The quarantine, the first order of its kind in 50 years, will last for 14 days from when the plane left Wuhan, CDC health officials said at a news conference Friday.

Chinese officials have agreed to permit teams of experts, coordinated by WHO, to visit China to help contain the outbreak.

Mark Jackwood, a University of Georgia molecular virologist who studies avian coronaviruses, said his concern about the fast-spreading virus is high – a 7 or 8 on a 10-point scale.

“The situation is changing by the hour. The cases continue to go up,” he said.

Alex Everett first heard about the coronavirus a couple weeks ago while recovering from an unrelated gastrointestinal and blood infection at an international hospital in Shanghai.

As he was being released from the hospital, Everett grabbed a few surgical masks. Little did he know he would end up using them constantly during his last days in China.

Everett, who was on track to complete a master’s program in July, was initially reluctant to head home to Georgia. The risk for coronavirus seemed extremely low, and daily life in Shanghai seemed relatively normal, albeit slightly more quiet than usual. Then, everything changed.

Chinese authorities shut down almost all transit going in and out of Wuhan to try to contain the virus. And U.S. and foreign embassies began evacuating personnel.

That’s when the Everetts insisted Alex cut short his internship, pack his bags and catch the first available flight home.

During his last days in Shanghai, Alex Everett barely left his apartment. When he did, it was only for food and water. He would wear the masks, which were suddenly ubiquitous in China.

Despite having no symptoms of the coronavirus, he said he plans to self-quarantine for 14 days at home.

The mysterious coronavirus appears to be more contagious, but less likely to result in death, than its cousin, SARS, which killed 1 in 10 infected patients during the 2003 epidemic. UGA’s Jackwood said early data suggests the new coronavirus has a fatality rate of about 3%, though he cautioned that viruses can change.

Jackwood said the flu, which strikes several million in the U.S. annually, is far more of a health threat to Americans. Every year, tens of thousands of people in the U.S. die from the flu. In Georgia alone, where flu activity continues to be high and widespread, 37 people have died from the illness this season. And more than 1,000 people in metro Atlanta have been hospitalized for flu this season.

Admittedly, the flu feels familiar, almost predictable, even though the severity varies year to year, Jackwood said.

“With this virus, we don’t know how bad it’s going to get,” he said. “And that’s where the fear comes in. It’s the fear of the unknown.”

»RELATED: More than 20 travelers undergo advanced screening for coronavirus at Hartsfield-Jackson

Staff writers Kelly Yamanouchi, Matt Kempner and Michael  Kanell contributed to this article.