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Risk of coronavirus is 'extremely low' in U.S.

Although the medical community is keeping a close eye on coronavirus in the U.S., the risk is extremely low to the general public.

MINNEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS - Americans understandably have questions about coronavirus.

"Whenever a new infection hits the scene," Dr. Mark Schleiss said, "people are fascinated and scared."

But Schleiss, the American Legion chair of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said there is no reason to panic in the U.S. Only six cases have been confirmed here, a minuscule percentage in a country of more than 300 million people.

"The risk," Schleiss said, "is extremely low."

That still hasn't stopped some Americans from wearing masks in public spaces like airports and malls. In New York, some stores have reportedly sold out of masks due to skyrocketing demand, as people scramble to protect themselves. Intentions aside, the masks appear to have little value for most people, unless they are in close, personal contact with an infected person over a lengthy period of time. 

Health officials, including the CDC, have said outright that masks are not recommended at this time.

"Wearing masks in public, when the risk is low and the prevalence of infection is low... that would not really make sense," Schleiss said. "There's certainly no role for a mask here."

At the same time, infectious disease experts like Schleiss do not wish to downplay coronavirus. The latest case in Illinois — involving a husband who caught it from his wife after she traveled to Wuhan — represents a significant development because it's the first case with person-to-person transmission in the U.S.

That "does frame things in a new light," Schleiss acknowledged. The medical community will now be paying close attention to see if more cases emerge in the coming days.

"If we do (see more cases), we need to start talking about isolation, prevention and possibly even quarantine measures that are being talked about in China," Schleiss said.

But we're not at that point yet.

"Absolutely not," Schleiss said.

Keep in mind, you're much more likely to catch the flu — which kills thousands of Americans ever year — than coronavirus.

"The novelty of it, the worry about the risk, that makes it newsworthy. We should talk about it," Schleiss said, "but at the same time, we should talk about the illnesses that we know are affecting us very day."

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