Alex Che, president of the Kansas City Chinese American Association, estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 Chinese and Chinese American residents in the area, although it’s hard to know for sure because they're spread out all over the metro.
Many have friends and family in China, and as deaths from the new coronavirus — officially named COVID-19 on Tuesday by the World Health Organization — exceeded 1,000, concern grew among the community here as well.
“When we celebrated the Chinese New Year last month, we started fundraising to help the area hit heavily by the virus,” Che said. “And we did education to try to encourage those who came back from China to do the self-quarantine.”
The fundraising efforts generated $18,000. The community purchased and sent disinfectant and 1,000 pairs of protective goggles to Wuhan in Hubei province in east-central China, where the virus originated.
Che said he knows a global health emergency originating in China could generate an anti-Asian backlash in the U.S., but he hasn’t seen that happen yet.
“We have heard people (had negative experiences) in New York and Los Angeles based on the fear that Chinese people are carrying the virus, " he said. "That’s why we were distributing hand sanitizer and having a lot of discussion in the community.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 13 cases of the virus in the United States. None are in Kansas or Missouri, but cases have turned up in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Although the World Health Organization has declared the new coronavirus a "public health emergency of international concern," the CDC says the immediate health risk to the general American public is still considered low. Those most at risk are health workers and people who come in contact with infected individuals.
An unidentified person in Lawrence, Kansas, was hospitalized at the end of January with symptoms mirroring those of the virus. Tests, however, came back negative.
Hongchen Jiang, president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said concerns that students returning from winter break in China might have contracted the virus dissipated when none showed symptoms of the illness.
One of the students was his roommate.
“His temperature was good. He had no fever,“ Jiang said. “But he works at the cafeteria. I told him to stop working for the cafeteria. It was a suggestion. I cannot make him do it.” (He didn’t.)
The outbreak has affected the local Taiwanese community as well. There are about 50 Taiwanese families in the greater Kansas City area, according to Katherine You, whose parents are first-generation immigrants and run a marble import business in Lenexa, Kansas.
She said friends and family in Taiwan were “freaking out” as they heard news that supplies like surgical masks, facial tissues and rubbing alcohol might be rationed. She said she worries about her family there.
“My grandfather is in his 80s,” she said. “ My aunt takes care of him and likes to keep him active. But now he’s homebound because she doesn’t want him to get sick or exposed.”
The outbreak has affected family travel plans as well.
“My mom was supposed to head to Taiwan last week,” You said. “My aunt told her not to come because they’re asking everyone who comes to the island to self-quarentine for 14 to 20 days. Her whole trip was to be just two weeks.”