Wash your hands and stay home if you are sick.
It’s simple advice that will be repeated again and again as the local community, the nation and the world adjust to a deadly new coronavirus, COVID-19.
Local health care and emergency preparedness officials have been meeting and communicating on a regular basis to ensure the community is prepared should the virus infect someone in Allen County.
“The first thing we’re doing is to educate the public so there’s no need to panic,” Patty McGuffin, chief nursing officer for Allen County Regional Hospital, said. “We’re in connection with several organizations, and sharing information and resources.”
The team has years of experience preparing for a variety of emergency scenarios, as an emergency preparedness committee formed to improve communication between law enforcement, emergency responders and health care professionals in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Just in the last week or so, the team underwent training for the proper use of personal protective equipment like gloves, gowns, facemasks and more, McGuffin said.
“We have a huge advantage in our community, being part of this emergency preparedness committee. It gives us access to a lot of resources, with the expertise and experience of all the different agencies that are involved,” she said.
That experience has helped Allen County weather other disease outbreaks, like the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009.
The county already has established a task force specifically addressing COVID-19, adapting a similar plan used for H1N1, Becky Johnson, administrator for the SEK Multi-County Health Departments, said.
“We are updating the public via our Facebook page with any news, but as of right now, people need to take precaution, as they would with the flu: stay home if sick, cover your cough, wash your hands,” Johnson said.
Angela Murphy, director of Allen County Emergency Management, has been fielding calls to the county’s emergency dispatch center. Mostly, callers want to know what to do if someone in Allen County is exposed or infected. The number one question is about prevention, she said, and she refers them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at cdc.gov.
McGuffin and ACRH’s infection prevention specialist Polly Barker also pointed to the CDC website for the most up-to-date information. It’s a constantly evolving situation, McGuffin said.
“Things have been changing moment to moment,” she said.
The state also offers information at www.kdheks.gov/coronavirus .
The new coronavirus was first discovered in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. Since then, it has spread to 87 countries with more than 100,000 reported as infected and more than 3,000 reported fatalities.
The CDC has reported 164 U.S. cases with 11 deaths, although some sources report the toll at 14. However, the immediate health risk to most Americans is low, and most are unlikely to be exposed at this time, according to the CDC.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment so far has confirmed no cases and is investigating the illness of one person, according to an update Friday. Five other suspected cases had negative results.
The state is able to conduct tests and has enough capacity to support the needs of Kansas, according to KDHE. The state will staff a phone-bank operation during regular business hours through March 13 at 1-866-534-3463. KDHE also has an email address for general inquiries, COVIDemail@example.com.
Because it has taken time for the disease to spread to the U.S., local healthcare officials have been able to plan their response, Barker said.
“Each time you deal with these kinds of things, you learn,” Barker said. “The first thing you learn is: Don’t panic. The second is to be thankful we have time to have these conversations and look at these plans from different perspectives to protect our community.”
SO WHAT should you do to protect against coronavirus?
The best advice is to wash your hands, Barker said.
At ACRH, employees must thoroughly wash their hands before they put on personal protective equipment like gloves and gowns.
“It’s the very first thing we do,” Barker said.
Wash your hands often and with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Next, Barker advises anyone who is sick to stay home. Don’t go to school. Don’t go to the store. Don’t go out in public if you can avoid it.
The CDC also recommends:
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
• Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
• Facemasks do not protect against respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, but those who show symptoms should wear one to prevent the spread of the disease to others.
THE NEW virus is introducing itself to the U.S. during the influenza season. The flu is much more prevalent, with as many as 45 million cases this year and at least 46,000 reported fatalities.
The coronavirus and influenza are both respiratory illnesses. Coronaviruses are not new, and typically produce only mild symptoms. COVID-19 is a new version of a coronavirus, and researchers are still learning about it.
Even with COVID-19, most people will experience mild symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath. Those who seem at risk for severe complications are the elderly and those with compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions.
The same is true for the flu, but a key difference seems to be that young children do not seem as susceptible to serious complications from the new coronavirus as they are to flu.
Anyone who experiences flu-like symptoms is encouraged to seek medical treatment. Health care facilities, including hospitals and physician offices and clinics, will screen patients with questions like “Do you have a cough or fever? Have you traveled outside the country?”
Anyone who answers yes at ACRH will be given a mask to wear, which has been the standard protocol for years.
If a patient is suspected to have coronavirus, that person will be isolated. More stringent precautions will be taken, and KDHE will be contacted.
“The state health department will direct us on testing and what to do at that point,” McGuffin said.
THE MAJORITY of the known coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have affected the elderly. Most of those who have died were at a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash.
Representatives of local senior care and assisted living facilities said they are taking the virus seriously. They’re following strict protocols about infection control, such as isolating the patient and providing respiratory treatment.
Windsor Place’s director of nursing Tera Pate said she frequently communicates with Murphy and others involved with the local coalition. She also uses the state’s online resource center to keep updated with the latest changes.
Staff also are required to take extra precautions and instruct visitors to do the same. Those things include wearing personal protective equipment like gowns and gloves. Staff will immediately notify KDHE if any case is suspected.
Windsor Place, an assisted living center, plans to send letters to family members next week to inform them about the facility’s plans and protocols in regard to the new coronavirus.
Tina Kelley, director of health care for Greystone and Arrowood residential care centers in Iola and Humboldt, reported similar precautions. She said residents and families have asked questions about coronavirus, as they watch and read news reports about the illness. Those questions are addressed as needed, such as when residents gather for their regular council meetings.
EXPECT TO learn more about coronavirus and the local response over the next couple of weeks, McGuffin said. The emergency preparedness committee will continue to meet, with plans to educate the public through the newspaper, social media and other sources.