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caption: Concern over the possible spread of a new coronavirus led the city of Sammamish to cancel a Lunar New Year event.
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Concern over the possible spread of a new coronavirus led the city of Sammamish to cancel a Lunar New Year event.
Credit: City of Sammamish

Coronavirus concerns rattle local Chinese community

The Year of the Rat is off to a rocky start as fear of a new coronavirus rattles the Chinese community in the Seattle area.

The virus has sickened thousands of people in China and killed at least 132 there.

Lunar New Year celebrations in Sammamish and Spokane were canceled after the first U.S. case of the novel coronavirus appeared in Washington state. A traveler who had returned from Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15 was diagnosed in Snohomish County.

READ: Sea-Tac will stop, screen travelers coming from China who appear sick

Lunar New Year celebrations in Bellevue and Seattle are continuing unaffected as the area's Chinese community sorts out how to react to news of the new virus.

Health officials say the risk from the unfamiliar virus out of China is much lower than that of the very familiar group of viruses known as the flu. Still, the new coronavirus – named for the crown-like spikes on its surface – has grabbed worldwide headlines and attention.

“The general Chinese community is kind of worried about this whole thing,” University of Washington sophomore Ben Yu of Sammamish said.

The Chinese Student Association, which represents Chinese-American students at the University of Washington, is holding its new year gala as planned on Saturday.

Yu said fear of coronavirus prompted one of the performers — a children’s dance troupe from the Northwest Chinese School based in Bellevue and Seattle — to cancel.

"It's a children's dance group. So obviously, the parents would want to be very cautious about having their children in, like, a very crowded area,” Yu said. “And they want to make sure that they are safe from whatever possible germs could come out of it."

The Northwest Chinese School, which has Saturday and after-school programs, has canceled its Saturday classes two weeks in a row due to concern over the new coronavirus. The classes are attended by more than 1,000 youths.

Vice Principal Jing Leng said the school was also considering delaying the Feb. 8 start of its new semester.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which represents students from China at the University of Washington, held its Lunar New Year event on Saturday.

On Monday, the group handed out 200 flu masks on campus and collected donations for medical needs in China.

“People are still attending events, but many wear masks,” said Jenny Chen, a sophomore from China.

She said Chinese students are more exposed to news about the coronavirus and hear more from their parents about it.

“They message me every day,” Chen said of her parents. “‘Make sure you wear a mask. Make sure you wash your hands.’”

Sophomore Sicheng Wang said a lot of his friends have bought flu masks, though many don’t wear them to class.

“They're afraid of wearing it because there's a stigma where, 'since you're already Chinese and you're wearing that face mask, are you, like, a part of this virus?’” Wang said.

caption: University of Washington sophomore Sicheng Wang on the campus's Red Square
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University of Washington sophomore Sicheng Wang on the campus's Red Square
Credit: KUOW Photo / John Ryan

“People have definitely given me weird looks when I wear face masks, especially on the Ave,” said Wang, who was born in China but grew up in Sammamish. “I'm just doing it for my own protection.”

“Campus events should proceed as normal,” University of Washington officials advised on Tuesday. “The risk of coronavirus to the UW community is low. There is no need to take additional precautions beyond those you would normally take to avoid the spread of colds and viruses during flu season.”

Three University of Washington students have been tested for the virus. Two tested negative, and the results for the third student are expected later this week.

"With our recent Lunar New Year event, we had hand sanitizers, and we also told people that if you're sick, please wear face masks or just do not come to the event,” Wang said. “For myself, I'm not too concerned because I know the flu has a lot more casualties per year than this."

Northwest Asian Weekly publisher Assunta Ng said her staff in Seattle have been telling relatives from China and Hong Kong not to visit because of the health risks of flying.

Several airlines have discontinued flights to the Chinese mainland, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun screening passengers for the coronavirus at 20 airports including Seattle-Tacoma International.

“It’s easy to catch germs in a crowded plane,” Ng said in an email to KUOW.

“Chinatown businesses have not been slowing down, a good thing,” she said.

The current flu season began last fall; 38 people in Washington state have died of the flu since then, according to the Washington Department of Health.

The only person known to have the new coronavirus in Washington state was in satisfactory condition in Everett's Providence Hospital Tuesday night.

Nationwide, there were five known coronavirus cases, and no deaths, as of Jan. 29, according to the CDC.