By Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) – The U.S. telehealth industry, including market leader Teladoc Health Inc, is preparing for a surge in demand as public health officials aiming to contain the fast-spreading new coronavirus encourage use of alternatives to clinic visits and patients seek to avoid public spaces.

The virus, which originated in central China in December, has spread to around 90 countries with more than 3,400 deaths worldwide. It has also spread across the United States with cases so far in 17 states and 14 deaths, all but one in Washington state.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended alternatives to face-to-face doctor or clinic visits to help limit exposure to the virus in the United States and free up resources for those who may really need it. Remote diagnoses through telehealth services could play a critical role, although actual testing for the new virus would have to be done in person.

“One of the technologies that has emerged loudly is telehealth,” said Bruce Pyenson, an actuary and adjunct professor at NYU’s school of public health, who has studied influenza pandemics.

“Telehealth services … could play a very helpful role in an epidemic, especially for the triage function of ‘How sick is someone? Do they really need immediate attention or are they probably going to be OK?'”

Virtual patient traffic at privately-held telehealth company American Well has risen about 11% since the first U.S. coronavirus death was reported on Saturday, while other companies have also had increased demand.

“We have seen an uptick in the phone calls we are receiving specifically around coronavirus,” Grand Rounds Inc Chief Medical Officer Ami Parekh told Reuters.

“Some patients just want to know if they can safely travel … some are calling with early viral symptoms and some are seeking more information on how to stay safe,” she said.

But similarities in symptoms of seasonal flu and COVID-19 – the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus – could pose a challenge to remote diagnosis.

Brad Younggren, chief medical officer of 98point6, which offers private text-based diagnosis and treatment via a mobile app, said their physicians were encouraging patients diagnosed with influenza to reconnect if they do not improve.

Teladoc said it has been partnering with the CDC to provide near real-time surveillance data on the spread of the virus.

It said it was still too early in the outbreak to judge whether the virus had boosted its business.

An $8.3 billion U.S. bill signed into law on Friday to fund the coronavirus outbreak response includes $500 million to waive certain restrictions on Medicare telehealth coverage. That provision is aimed at encouraging senior citizens to opt for at-home virtual healthcare services.

On Friday, CVS Health Corp said members of its Aetna health insurance unit should use telemedicine as their first line of defense, adding it would offer zero co-pay telemedicine visits for the next 90 days.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York; Writing by Ankur Banerjee; Editing by Bill Berkrot)