LOUISIANA – Public health officials are taking steps to prepare Pike County for possible cases of COVID-19, a new strain of coronavirus spreading around the world from its origin point in Wuhan, China.
No cases have been found or tested for in Pike County, and officials called the area “low-risk” — but organizations including Pike County Memorial Hospital, Pike County Health Department and Pike 911 are taking steps to be ready if cases do emerge.
“Just like every health care entity in the U.S., we’re in a preparatory mode,” PCMH Infection Control Director Lisa Pitzer said. “I don’t want people to be fearful. It’s good to know and educate yourself and be prepared. We’re here for them if they become ill, and we’re doing everything we can to be prepared.”
For Pike County Memorial Hospital, preparation means making sure hospital personnel have access to protective material and know how to use it around potentially contagious patients.
Pike County 911 dispatchers have begun asking callers reporting flu-like symptoms questions designed to determine whether they are potentially infected with coronavirus, in order to allow the callers and first responders to take steps to avoid contagion.
“We’ve added additional questions. You know, ‘have you been to certain countries? Have you met with someone from these countries? Have you traveled recently and, if so, where have you traveled to?’” Pike 911 Director Jim Porter said.
So far, cases in the U.S. have been mostly restricted to people who caught the disease overseas before traveling, and the few cases of person-to-person spread confirmed within the U.S. have been confined to the West Coast. In the Midwest cases have been identified in Illinois and Wisconsin.
“Right now our risk here is low compared to elsewhere,” said Alyssa Crigger, Pike County Health Department’s Communicable Disease and Public Health Nurse.
According to a current summary of the situation published by the CDC, “most people in the U.S. will have little immediate risk of exposure to [COVID-19]” — though the report added that “the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is very high, to the United States and globally.”
More details are emerging as the world responds to the virus, but the CDC reports that symptoms, which may emerge 2-14 days after a person is infected, includes a cough, fever and shortness of breath. People with symptoms should reach out to their health care provider.
While the country waits to see how far the disease will spread, Pike County residents are encouraged to follow normal best practices.
“We’re in a low-risk [area]. People should not be fearful, but they should have a heightened awareness and do the things we ask them to do every day,” Pitzer said.
That includes washing hands, covering sneezes and coughs, disinfecting surfaces and avoiding close contact with sick people. They should avoid touching their face — eyes, nose and mouth — with their hands. Crigger also encouraged residents to follow the CDC’s guidelines on travel, which warned passengers to avoid non-essential travel to South Korea, Italy, China and Iran as of March 2.
The Pike County Health Department will be the local point of contact with the Missouri Department of Health and the federal Center for Disease Control. Samples from potentially infected patients would be gathered and then sent for testing.
The county-level response will be dictated by the guidance provided by the CDC, Pitzer and Crigger said. Pitzer said she expects suspected cases of COVID-19 would likely be asked to stay in isolation, either at home or at the hospital. The hospital has a negative pressure room, which prevents the spread of disease from room to room by controlling air flow out of the room, which could be used to house potentially infected patients. Confirmed cases could be sent to larger hospitals with physicians specializing in infectious disease, depending on the load those hospitals are already handling. All of this, Pitzer said, is subject to change as new information and guidance about the disease is released.
“I think it will be an ever-changing picture as it evolves. If it evolves. Hopefully it’s all under control,” Pitzer said.
Even peripherally involved businesses in Pike County are seeing consequences of the national and international reaction to the disease. Kevin Keely, the chair of the PCMH board, sells dust masks for construction in his role as president of Lacrosse Lumber. When the issue of the hospital’s preparations for coronavirus came up at the board’s Thursday, Feb. 27 meeting, Keely noted that the masks have been back-ordered for months as people scramble to buy them.