Suncoast hospital officials keeping an eye on MERS virus

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SARASOTA, Fla. – Health officials in Orlando say they are waiting for test results on some hospital staff members who may have been infected with the potentially deadly MERS virus. So what exactly is this virus, and what is being done to protect the Suncoast?

Two Orlando health care workers with flu-like symptoms are being tested for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome; another 15 are at home right now and under observation. All of them came in contact with a man from Saudi Arabia who tested positive for MERS on Monday.

The case is the second MERS case in the United States. The man diagnosed with the first unrelated case in Indiana is now out of the hospital.

MERS is fatal in nearly one-third of all cases. Now it is in Florida, but until recently, many never heard of the virus.

If you show up at the ER with respiratory symptoms including coughing, and a fever, there's something you may be asked. “We want to know if you've been travelling in the last two weeks. Have you been out of the country?” says registered nurse Marilee Arnold of Doctor’s Hospital of Sarasota.

If you come in with a cough this is what you will be asked to do: “We're going to want you to wear a mask, we're going to take extra care to clean everything, and if we know that you've or even suspect that you may have this virus, we're going to put you in a room where we can prevent the rest of the ER from being contaminated.”

The CDC reports eight countries in the Arabian peninsula with lab-confirmed cases of MERS, and six additional cases including the U.K. with travel associated cases. Now there are two reported cases in the U.S., and one of them is in Florida.

“Both of them were on health care workers that were working in Saudi Arabia.”

MERS is caused by a corona virus, but it's different from corona viruses found in people. Dr. Manuel Gordillo, head of infectious disease at Sarasota Memorial Hospital says we know a lot about the virology of the virus, what we don’t know yet is how this is transmitted. “There probably is some close connection to a bat virus, and they also have found evidence of infection with a similar virus in dromedary camels in Saudi Arabia.”

There are several symptoms, but these are the three most prevelant: “Fever, cough, shortness of breath.”

There are precautions to protect yourself if you think you may have been exposed, says infection control specialist Cindy Stuttler. “You make sure that you have a mask facialed on to protect your eyes, nose and mouth. Wash your hands after touching any potentially contaminated surface. But, if you don't have to be around them then absolutely don't be around them.”

But when it comes to the spread of disease, “It's not something that we worry about at this time being all over the place, but it may become that with the way modern travel is.”

According to the CDC, we don't know where the virus came from or exactly how it spreads. However, it's likely that it came from an animal source. All reported cases to date are linked to the Arabian peninsula.

The World Health Organization, the CDC, and other partners are working to better understand the possible risks from MERS to the public's health. We will keep you posted as more information comes in.