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March 2, 2020 - 4:31pm

COVID-19 may never reach Batavia but local officials say community preparedness is critical

posted by Howard B. Owens in coronavirus, UMMC, health, news, notify.

The first case of coronavirus in New York was announced yesterday but that was in New York City and so far there is no evidence of the disease reaching Western New York. That doesn't mean, however, that Genesee County residents shouldn't be aware and have a plan for dealing with a nearby outbreak, local health officials say.

Local health agencies have been keeping an eye on COVID-19* since it was first reported in Wuhan, China about two months ago, said Paul Pettit, Genesee County health director.

He said local officials have been in discussion with state officials for weeks as well as communicating with and monitor information from the Center for Disease Control.

The plan right now is to encourage people to do what they normally should due during flu season:

  • Wash your hands frequently;
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow;
  • Don't put your hands to your face;
  • If you have flu-like symptoms, call your doctor and follow your doctor's instructions (don't go to the ER or your doctor's office unless instructed);
  • If you're sick, isolate yourself from other people;
  • Be informed with timely and accurate information.

"The primary goal is containment and (to) suppress it as best we can," Pettit said. "If we find a case, we want to develop a case history, find how who may people have been exposed, where the person has traveled if they've been out and about and at public events. That is the best way to suppress it and ensure to lock it down."

One thing you don't need to do: Hoard masks. The only people who need to wear masks, Pettit said, are health care workers and people already infected. They will do little to help people in the general public to protect them from infection and hoarding masks will make it harder for those who truly need them to get them.

One of the reasons this new virus was able to spread quickly -- outside of the Chinese government mishandling the initial outbreak -- is that a person can be a carrier for two weeks and show no symptoms. So if a person doesn't know he or she is infected, that person is going to go about their normal daily routine.

There are two ways the disease is transmitted in the United States -- either by those people who have traveled overseas in a region where Corvid-19 is spreading or by what authorities call "community transmission" (people who became infected by coming into contact with an infected person in the local community).

The one infected person in New York City is a woman in her 30s who recently returned from Iran, where more than 1,500 cases have been reported and 66 people have died (250 people have recovered).

Obviously, Pettit said, community transmission is the larger concern but people who have traveled to regions where the disease is present should be quarantined upon their return to the United States.

So far, four people in Genesee County (and five in Orleans County) who traveled to China have been quarantined. All four were isolated at home for two weeks and monitored daily for signs of illness. None became ill, Pettit said. None of the individuals had been to Wuhan, China.

Schools, faith-based organizations, community groups, and those holding public gatherings, also need to develop plans for responding to a potential outbreak, Pettit said. The CDC website can be a resource for local organizations to develop response plans.

"We don't want people to panic but we want people to understand it's a serious issue," Pettit said.

So far in China, there have been more than 80,000 cases reported out of nearly 90,000 reported worldwide. Globally, 3,056 deaths have been reported. In the United States, there are at least 90 confirmed cases and five deaths. There have been reports of community transmission in California, Oregon and Washington. There's concern that the virus spread in Washington for weeks without detection.

That isn't a concern here at this point, Pettit said, and this week, two of New York's infection disease labs became centers for testing for coronavirus.

United Memorial Medical Center is ready if the epidemic reaches Genesee County, said CEO Dan Ireland.

He said hospital staff, including Tricia Woodward, infection preventionist, have been monitoring the situation closely since the outbreak was first reported in China and keeping the rest of the hospital staff informed.

Like Pettit, Ireland said one of the best strategies to containing the disease is good information and acting on it.

"That means we're making sure we're prepared according to CDC guidelines," Ireland said. "We conduct education with the staff here, communicate out with our community partners, and Tricia does on-the-spot discussions with staff to make sure they have the correct information. We have routine education and drills to make sure our staff is always ready to respond."

If there is a local case, Woodward said the patient would be kept in a special isolation room and any staff entering the room would wear goggles, a mask, gloves and a gown.

Like Pettit, Woodward said the best strategy to level out transmission is for people who become sick is to stay home.

Not every case of COVID-19 is serious. Like the flu, most are not. The disease is most dangerous for older people, people with compromised immune systems, and people with respiratory difficulties, which is why the best recommendation for anybody who may become sick is to first, call your doctor. Don't leave the house unless directed to do so by a qualified medical professional.

"Having people flooding into ERs or doctors' offices when they suspect they're sick creates more of an environment where it can be transmitted, so it's not a bad thing to pick up the phone and call a doctor," Ireland said. "If you have a high fever, a doctor can provide proper guidance."

In China, there have been whole cities placed on a social isolation regime. That means people must stay home. Businesses and factories have closed. Public events were canceled.

If that happens here, people will need to be prepared with enough nonperishable, shelf-stable food and water to stay isolated for up to three weeks.

"Fortunately, we're nowhere near that stage anywhere in the U.S. or in this state," Pettit said. "Obviously the goal is to use quarantines to keep from getting to that point."

But a lot of any success is keeping the disease from spreading at China-like levels will depend on the actions of individual citizens, not government agencies.

"Everybody has to be personally accountable," Pettit said. "Everybody has to do their part and take care of themselves so they can take care of others."

*(According to the CDC: COVID-19, "CO" stands for "corona," "VI" for "virus," and "D" for disease.)

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