On Guard Against Coronavirus in Chinatown: 'So Far So Good.'

Dr. Perry Pong, chief medical officer at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in Chinatown. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Tribn

Feb. 09, 2020

Nowhere in the city are healthcare workers more alert to signs of the deadly coronavirus than in the city’s Asian-American communities. And in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center on Canal Street is on the front lines of defense. Though the clinic, where many in the neighborhood go for primary care, has fielded plenty of calls from worried residents, it has yet to see a suspected case, said its chief medical officer, Dr. Perry Pong.

“Look at the number of cases in China and look at the number of cases here,” Pong said in a phone interview. “Knock wood, so far so good.”

There have been no confirmed cases of the virus, to date, in the city. (The Dept. of Health has investigated five potential cases, with one still pending, according to the department’s latest figures.) At the Wang clinic, Pong said, no symptoms have raised alarms. But, he stressed, that could change. 

“We have to see after more people come back from visiting China for Lunar New Year, will that still hold?” he said. The situation is fluid.” (The U.S. is requiring its citizens returning home to be quarantined for up to 14 days if they have visited Hubei, the province where the virus broke out.)

Unfortunately, Pong said, fewer people are coming to the clinic for routine exams out of fear of exposure to the illness. “People are cancelling. They’re afraid. First, they’re afraid to go out in general and then, doubly, they’re afraid to go to a health center where there might be sick people.”

“We want to take care of people,” he added.

The doctor said he hopes to dispel those fears. “Of course we should have an appropriate level of concern and preparedness. At the same time we don’t want to create panic or paralysis because the threat is evolving.” 

“We don’t know what the eventual outcome will be,” he added, “and because of that, it really induces more anxiety.”

Though some people wear masks in Chinatown out of caution, including a few staff members in the clinic, Pong said the protection is overly cautious, and even creates a greater sense of fear. 

“If you’re healthy we’re not recommending it,” he said. “If people come in saying they’re feeling ill they’re told to put on a mask. You don’t want that person spreading it. And the number two question is, ‘Have you travelled outside the United States two weeks before you got sick? You did? Where?”

“If you have symptoms of pneumonia, heavy coughing, fever, shortness of breath, travelled from China and you’re sick enough to go to the hospital, we’re calling the Department of Health. Even if it’s borderline and we’re not sure if they’re sick enough, we’re calling the Department of Health because we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.” 

“There were some people who said they came from China or Hong Kong and are feeling a little funny and want to get checked out,” Pong said, adding, “So far, those people were ok.”