By Anna Jauhola
Although it is called COVID-19, the recent outbreak of coronavirus that started in China is nothing new. Until last Tuesday, Feb. 11, the disease was called the novel coronavirus, meaning a new version. Similar virus outbreaks happened within the coronavirus family in 2012 with the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and in 2003 with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Although COVID-19 has spread rapidly in China since December and killed over 1,000 people, the general population within the United States remains at low risk. As of Monday, Feb. 17, there have been 15 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S., but they have been contained through isolation and observation, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Cases were confirmed in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington.
North Dakota Department of Health reports it is monitoring seven for the disease, three of which last week returning from a trip to China. The Minnesota Department of Health website states there have been no confirmed cases in the state, but three people had been monitored and released when it was confirmed they were not infected.
Through its connections with the Minnesota Department of Health, Kittson Healthcare is prepared to handle COVID-19 should it enter the county.
Cindy Urbaniak, public health director at Kittson Healthcare, said their process for handling COVID-19 will be similar to how they handle influenza outbreaks.
“There are two questions we will ask every patient: Have you traveled to China in the past 14 days? Do you have a fever or symptoms of lower respiratory illness like a cough or difficulty breathing?” Urbaniak said.
Healthcare professionals at Kittson Healthcare are trained through the CDC to recognize influenza-like symptoms.
Should anyone answer either of those questions in the positive or present symptoms of COVID-19, officials will give them masks in the waiting room and take patients into an exam room quickly to minimize public exposure. They will likely be given a nasal swab, which is sent to the CDC in Atlanta for testing, and possibly given anti-viral medication.
Patients would then be placed in isolation at home, she said, along with their family members with whom they have had close contact.
“We’d increase the surveillance of people coming in to see us and increase our use of (personal protection equipment) to protect the staff working with these people,” Urbaniak said.
Coronaviruses are constantly changing, leaving healthcare workers with a different situation daily. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), coronaviruses spread from certain animals to people, and then from people to people. SARS was blamed on civet cats and MERS jumped from camels to humans. Various reports have indicated COVID-19 may have spread to humans from bats. Urbaniak said this time around, she feels the CDC is much more proactive in preventing the spread.
“They’ve done more with this one than back when SARS was an issue in Toronto and MERS in the Middle East,” she said. “They’re much more aggressively responding to this virus. It reminds me a lot of when H1N1, the swine flu, came in 2009.”
She said viruses shift and change rapidly, resulting in pharmaceutical companies taking months to create vaccines if they can create any at all.
As COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, it spreads much like influenza through coughing and sneezing, so preventative measures are similar, Urbaniak said. If you cough or sneeze, do so into your elbow or a tissue, not into your hands. Practice regular handwashing with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, especially after you cough or sneeze. If you are ill, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others. If you need to visit the clinic, use a mask from the kiosk at the door and hand sanitizer or wash your hands.
Many people within Kittson County travel year-round, especially in the winter to warmer climates. Several area residents travel to Arizona where COVID-19 has been diagnosed. Urbaniak said the average traveler will likely not come into contact with someone who came back from China. However, she said they should still take the above precautions but also get enough sleep and eat healthy food. If someone does feel ill or knows they came into contact with someone who may have been to China, make sure to tell your healthcare provider when you visit the clinic.
As with influenza, the most at-risk populations for COVID-19 are infants, the elderly, pregnant women, those with suppressed immune systems and chronic illnesses.
For more and continuing information on this virus, visit https://www.cdc.gov/.
By Anna Jauhola