As national concerns mount about the coronavirus COVID-19, local agencies are preparing for a possible outbreak and directing concerned residents to reliable sources of information over rumors.
Samie Stephens, regional epidemiologist at San Juan Basin Public Health, said an increased number of concerned community members have contacted the health department during the past week about COVID-19. But she said Friday there have been no confirmed cases in Colorado.
Stephens said she understands people are worried about the spread of COVID-19, and the health department is taking appropriate steps to address the outbreak and work with state and local partners to coordinate efforts.
Part of those efforts include working with local hospitals, public school districts, elected officials, emergency planners and primary care providers to be prepared for a potential outbreak and spread.
With reports of a worldwide shortage of medical face masks, people are discouraged from buying them at this point.
“Right now, the CDC does not recommended the use of face masks,” Stephens said. “It’s not spreading in our community, so face masks are not what’s recommended right now.”
Stephens said if anyone in the area has recently traveled outside the country and is concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19, they should monitor recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or call the health department for more information.
Mercy Regional Medical Center is also preparing response strategies should a case be reported locally or if the coronavirus becomes more widespread. The hospital held an exercise Feb. 10 going over procedures for receiving a patient with a suspected infectious disease, said Keri McCune, infection prevention program manager for the hospital. She said the exercise “helped identify any planning gaps or areas of improvement, so that we can address them before an emergency happens.”
Since that exercise, Mercy has developed step-by-step processes for patients who might show up for COVID-19 testing.
“Mercy is prepared and ready if we get a suspected case,” McCune said. If someone needs to go to Mercy for potential coronavirus testing, she said they should first call and consult with a member of the clinical staff before showing up.
“Washing your hands is still the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself,” McCune said.
Under Colorado law, the Department of Public Health and Environment and its local counterparts – like San Juan Basin Public Health – are tasked with leading and coordinating efforts around any outbreak, said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.
Knowlton said the early 2000s outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) laid the groundwork for the consortium of local public health professionals, law enforcement, first responders and emergency management to handle an outbreak.
“There’s multiple agencies in this community that are monitoring and making preparations to handle the situation,” he said.
Durango School District 9-R has also developed an infectious disease pandemic response plan in coordination with San Juan Basin Public Health, said Dan Snowberger, superintendent of the district. He said the school district does “not have any heightened concerns outside of normal flu and cold season, and we are continuing to monitor changes in that situation with the support of San Juan Basin Health.”
He added it is highly recommended families keep students home if they are exhibiting flu-like symptoms and continue to practice regular hand-washing and good hygiene.
Former La Plata County Coroner Carol Huser, who is a forensic pathologist, said COVID-19 is “a vastly different beast from the flu.” While the flu kills about one in 1,000, on average, COVID-19 kills about one in 50, Huser said.
People don’t need to “start hoarding food,” but they should continue to take reasonable precautions, she said. “Stay informed, wash your hands, stay away from sick people, and if you’re sick, don’t go around infecting other people.”
Huser, who currently lives in Florida, said she plans to move back to La Plata County by May 1. But she may return sooner if the coronavirus becomes a major concern in the U.S., “because I’d rather be there than in Florida.”
Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for the health department, said people should prepare like they would for a winter snowstorm – stock up on prescription medicine and basic food supplies “in case people have to stay in their homes for an extended period of time.”
Ninde said with information changing rapidly, “the best thing is to go to the trusted sources and get the information there instead of from maybe less appropriate sources.”
San Juan Basin Public Health established a webpage at sjbpublichealth.org/coronavirus/ to provide regular updates about the situation.