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The passengers in his cab were coughing but wearing face masks. He still caught the coronavirus

Fear spreads along with coronavirus
Fear spreads along with cases of coronavirus 07:13

A taxi driver in Thailand likely caught the coronavirus from Chinese tourists who were passengers in his cab. The tourists were coughing but wearing face masks, the driver said. He still caught the virus, despite the masks.

The 51-year-old driver started experiencing symptoms on January 20, according to a case report published in the New England Journal of Medicine. At that time, he was unaware of the coronavirus outbreak, which was still mostly spreading in China.

The man took over-the-counter medication, but by January 24, he felt too ill to drive his taxi and spent a few days resting at home. On January 28, he went to a hospital in Bangkok with trouble breathing and was referred to the Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute. That's where doctors say he tested positive for the coronavirus.

He had no history of travel to China, but he did report having contact with Chinese tourists in his taxi. He told doctors the tourists were coughing but wore protective face masks.

Concern In Thailand As The Wuhan Covid-19 Spreads
People wearing face masks in Bangkok, Thailand, on February 28, 2020. A taxi driver in Thailand likely caught the coronavirus from Chinese tourists who were coughing but wearing face masks, the driver said. Getty

Health experts do not recommend healthy people wear face masks, but if a person is ill and showing symptoms a mask may reduce their chances of spreading the virus to others, Dr. Andrew Stanley Pekosz of Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health told CBS News. The illness primarily spreads via droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, but the virus itself is so small it can get through or around common face masks.

Instead, experts say washing your hands thoroughly and frequently is the best way to protect yourself. That's because one of the most common ways infections spread is when people touch a contaminated surface and then touch their mouth or nose. 

The taxi driver, who likely caught the virus from the mask-wearing tourists, was discharged from the hospital on February 5 and his family tested negative for the virus. 

Reuters reports doctors praised the driver for staying home and then reporting to a hospital when he became ill. 

"I watched the news every day from my quarantine room and send my support to Wuhan," the driver, whose name has not been revealed, said at a news conference in February, Reuters reported. "Even I can beat it. So can you," the driver said.

Thailand received around 11 million tourists from China last year, and the World Health Organization reports that as of Sunday it has confirmed at least 42 cases of coronavirus in the country.

Tourism may contribute to the spread of the virus between countries, but for workers like cab drivers, tourists are also big contributors to their incomes.

"When I found out I had the virus, I cried because I have to take care of my family," the driver said, according to Reuters. "But I don't have a bad feeling against tourists or the Chinese. I drive a taxi, tourists are my breadbasket."

And this apparently isn't the only case of the coronavirus being transmitted from a tourist to a taxi driver. A driver in Japan likely became infected after coming in contact with someone who had been on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, according to the South China Morning Post.

Seminario, a taxi driver in Milan, wears a protective mask
A taxi driver in Milan, Italy, wears a protective mask as he sanitizes his car on February 28, 2020. Taxis have been losing business since Italy's coronavirus outbreak. Reuters

That ship was put under a 14-day quarantine in February. Nearly 700 passengers and crew were eventually diagnosed with the illness.

The Japanese driver, who is in her 60s, works in Okinawa, where the cruise ship stopped on February 1, according to the local government, the South China Morning Post reports. That is when she likely came in contact with a passenger from the ship before it was quarantined. The driver is being treated and was reported to be in a stable condition on Friday.

Another taxi driver in Japan, a man in his 70s, also tested positive for the virus, as did a bus driver in Nara Prefecture, Japan, who had transported tourists from Wuhan, China, the South China Morning Post reports.

In Taiwan, the first coronavirus death on the island was a taxi driver, according to Reuters.The driver was a 61-year-old man who also had diabetes and hepatitis B. He had not traveled abroad recently, but he often drove people who were visiting from Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said.

Tourism decreases in Italy as coronavirus spreads 03:00

One of the driver's family members tested positive for the virus, which was Taiwan's first local transmission case, the health minister said. Taiwan has banned Chinese visitors and foreigners with a recent history of travel to China, and most flights to China have also been suspended, Reuters reports.

CBS News has reached out to New York Taxi Worker Alliance to ask about any potential warnings or precautions given to drivers, who come in contact with many different people and travelers from all over the world in a confined space daily. We will update this story when we get a response.

In January, China took steps to limit travel among its citizens, including a suspension of all tour groups and on the sale of tour group packages for overseas travel, The New York Times reports. That suspension could taken a toll on tourism and consumer spending across the globe.

The spread of coronavirus has also affected tourism to Italy, where cases of the virus soared by 50 percent over the weekend.

The virus continues spreading fast in South Korea, Iran and Italy, prompting the U.S. to increase travel warnings and restrictions.

Cases of the disease, officially known as COVID-19, have now been confirmed in at least 12 states in the U.S., with almost 90 cases in all. There have been two U.S. fatalities, both in Washington state.

Coronavirus has killed more than 3,000 people globally and infected about 89,000, with the vast majority of cases and deaths in China.

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