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MERS Mystery

Florida Hospital Workers Who Treated MERS Patient Also Ill

Several health care workers who treated the second U.S. MERS patient are being kept in isolation, as is the patient.TODAY

Two of the health care workers who treated a MERS patient in Florida have come down with respiratory symptoms, and are being tested to see if they may have caught the mysterious virus from him, hospital officials say.

In at least one of the cases it’s almost certain not to be MERS — the staffer started showing symptoms just a day after treating the patient, who’s the second person to be diagnosed with MERS in the United States.

The incubation period for MERS — meaning the time it takes from contacting someone who’s infected to showing the first symptoms — is usually about five days.

“We want to be extra cautious,” said Dr. Antonio Crespo, infectious disease specialist and chief quality officer for the P. Phillips Hospital in Orlando. "These two people were in contact with the patient without a mask."

One of the staffers was treated and sent home, and the other is in a special isolation room at the hospital, like the MERS patient is.

“We want to be extra cautious."

Health care workers who treat patients with the virus are the most likely to become infected themselves, probably because of the close contact.

Crespo said 20 health care workers at two hospitals who may have been exposed to the virus are keeping themselves isolated at home and being regularly tested for MERS.

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The MERS patient, a 44-year-old health care worker from Saudi Arabia, was visiting family in Orlando when he became ill enough to visit the emergency room on May 8. He’s been in the hospital since May 9 and has been kept isolated under special conditions ever since doctors suspected he might have MERS.

Middle East respiratory syndrome virus (MERS) is on the rise, especially in Saudi Arabia. It’s infected more than 500 people since it was first identified in 2012, spread to 16 countries, and killed about a quarter of its victims.

The World Health Organization has been holding a special meeting about the outbreaks and was expected to issue a new report on Wednesday.

The first U.S. patient with MERS, also a health care worker who had been working in Saudi Arabia, has gone home after treatment in an Indiana hospital.

Doctors say the risk to the general public is very low.

MERS is not terribly infectious. Studies of those who have become infected show they were usually in close and prolonged contact with a victim. But it's a new virus, and very deadly compared to something like the flu, so doctors want to err on the side of caution.

Health detectives are tracking down everyone who flew on four flights with the MERS patient, from Saudi Arabia to London, then to Boston, Atlanta and Orlando.

The trouble with treating any respiratory virus is they all have similar symptoms -- fever, cough, body aches. And people get these viruses all the time. it takes about two days to test for something specific like MERS. If MERS is suspected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises hospitals to just act as if it were MERS.

So patients are being kept in special isolation rooms, with strict hygiene procedures. "When we go and visit the patient -- I went this morning -- I have to wear a special mask called an N-95 (respirator). I have to wear a gown and gloves. Once we get out of the room we dispose of everything," Crespo told reporters.

"I don’t think we have seen the last of this."

The MERS patient also visited a second hospital, the Orlando Regional Medical Center. Officials at the P. Phillips Hospital are not precisely sure why -- he didn't go to seek treatment, they say -- but to be extra sure, they've asked five hospital staff who were in contact with him to stay home for 14 days, get tested for MERS and stay away from other people.

But because he did not feel well, the patient didn't travel around the region and mostly stayed home, doctors said. He did not go visit any tourist attractions in Orlando.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama had been briefed on the two cases.

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Dr. Ken Michaels of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County says hospitals should prepare for cases like this. "I don’t think we have seen the last of this," he told reporters.

"We are going to see more travel from this part of the world."

With a surge of cases in Saudi Arabia, people are sure to carry the virus on trips with them, Michaels said -- something that CDC and World Health Organization officials have also said.

Both of the men who carried MERS to the U.S. worked in hospitals where MERS patients were treated -- one in Jeddah, one in Riyadh.

There's no specific treatment for MERS. Patients get what's called supportive care -- intravenous fluids, oxygen or a breathing tube if needed, and pain medications.