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Saudi Health Worker Brings MERS to State

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
CDC-- Cynthia Goldsmith, Azaibi Tamin
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A Saudi Arabian health care worker visiting family in Orlando is the nation’s second case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, commonly called MERS.

The 44-year-old man arrived at Dr. P. Phillips Hospital on May 8, eight days after traveling to Central Florida from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Tests confirmed the man contracted the respiratory illness known to spread in hospital settings , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said Monday.

Antonio Crespo, chief quality officer at Dr. Phillips - an Orlando Health hospital - said the patient is in good condition and improving. Hospital employees who were exposed to the virus have been placed on temporary paid leave and asked to stay home, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

"We are taking every precaution, but believe the risk of transmission from this patient is very low since his symptoms were mild and he was not coughing when he arrived at the hospital,” Crespo said in a statement.

During his visit, the infected patient reportedly visited only family and did not travel to any area theme parks, said John Armstrong, Florida’s Surgeon General.

"MERS CoV is not easy to spread, and there is no broad risk presented to the public from this case identified in Orange County," he said.

However, the man may have been in contact with as many as 500 different travelers on his flights, CDC Director Tom Frieden said.  The CDC is contacting all passengers on those flights and anyone else who may have been in contact with the patient.

“We have anticipated MERS reaching the United States and have prepared for it…the risk to the general public is extremely low,” he said.

Just two weeks ago in Indiana, the first U.S. case of the illness that has infected 538 and killed 145 people worldwide was identified. That case of MERS also came from Saudi Arabia, the Middle Eastern country, where officials say the infected man in Orlando works at a health care facility. 

The respiratory illness begins with flu-like fever and cough but can lead to shortness of breath and pneumonia. While the transmission risk is low, the inability to treat the severe respiratory illness is a serious concern, as is the fact that 27 percent of those infected have died.

Frieden said that is why officials are using an abundance of caution.

“We all really are connected by the air we breathe, the water we drink and the planes we ride in,” he said.

The Orlando patient travelled on four different flights on May 1, from Jeddah to London; London to Boston; Boston to Atlanta and Atlanta to Orlando. The first flight was Saudi Airlines flight 113 to London, according to a Public Health England press release.

The man started experiencing a fever and chills during the first leg.

The incubation period for developing MERS symptoms is between five and 14 days, said Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“For the travelling public, it is likely if you haven’t already developed symptoms, it is unlikely you are going to,” she said.

MERS belongs to the coronavirus family that includes the common cold and SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which caused some 800 deaths globally in 2003.

The Florida Department of Health says symptoms of MERS are flulike and include: congestion, cough, a fever of more than 100.4 degrees, shortness of breath, body aches and diarrhea. The best ways to avoid it is simple hand washing with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Also, avoid close contact with people who appear sick, or stay home if you experience these symptoms.

Fortunately, it is not as contagious as flu, measles or other diseases. There is no vaccine or cure and there's no specific treatment except to relieve symptoms.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Additional resources:

Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF.