As a new coronavirus from China continues to spread, most recently with the first confirmed case in North Carolina, local health officials are monitoring and preparing for the “rapidly evolving situation.”
The coronavirus transmits COVID-19, a viral disease that can spread from person to person. It originated in Wuhan, China.
Wake County confirmed there was a positive test for COVID-19 associated with a resident who who had recently visited a long-term care facility in the state of Washington. The person is doing well and is in isolation at home, according to a March 3 press release from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Patrick Johnson, public health services director at Haywood County’s Health & Human Services Agency, said he and other local, regional and national health officials are closely monitoring the coronavirus situation as it develops, with a focus on preventing the virus from moving.
The virus from China can travel airborne as far as six feet, and an average infected person will transmit the coronavirus to two or three other people, Johnson said to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners Monday, March 2.
“Everybody has heard so much about this,” Johnson said. “This is what I need folks to really understand — this is a rapidly evolving situation.”
Compared to other communicable diseases, the coronavirus is estimated to have a higher mortality rate than the seasonal flu, but lower than polio, smallpox and other vaccinate-preventable diseases. COVID-19 is not as contagious as measles, which can travel up to 100 feet, but has a similar mortality rate.
More than 87,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported globally, mostly in China, as well as 61 other countries, including the United States, where 43 cases in 10 states have been reported to the CDC, with two deaths.
Comparatively, the world has seen 29 million flu cases this season, causing 280,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths, including 115 deaths in North Carolina and four deaths in Haywood County.
“We don’t have a vaccine, so it is a cause for concern obviously,” Johnson said of COVID-19.
Close human contact is a known risk for infection, but it is uncertain whether the virus can be transmitted by indirect contact on surfaces.
“It mimics influenza, that’s why we’re encouraging people to get a flu shot,” Johnson said. “It’s all new right now.”
Adults older than 50, plus those with co-morbidities like diabetes or smoking may be at higher risk for severe infection.
It is unknown when the outbreak will peak, whether the coronavirus can be transmitted by people not experiencing symptoms, or whether this is the disease’s first season — similar to the flu.
“We have guidelines from the CDC and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services,” Johnson said. “If there’s an opportunity to quit smoking and vaping, this is it, because you want healthier lungs.”
There is a table with information about COVID-19 at the front of the Haywood Health Department lobby on Paragon Parkway.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but we should be prepared for transmission of COVID-19 in the United States,” Johnson said in an email. “We are preparing for that likelihood.”
Using CDC guidelines, Haywood’s health department has plans for isolating and quarantining anyone who may potentially be infected with a communicable disease, as well as a pandemic plan, all of which have been reviewed in relation to coronavirus, Johnson said.
“We have a NCDHHS weekly call since Feb. 4 for local health departments,” Johnson said. “They emphasize this is a ‘rapidly evolving situation’ over and over. The guidance evolves and changes also.”
Haywood Health Services is working to keep county healthcare partners updated with the latest information about the outbreak.
“I read about this topic every morning, noon and evening besides what I go over at work,” Johnson said. “I was a medical intelligence officer in the Air Force for five years, so this is a topic I tend to follow very closely.”
Hospital is preparedHaywood Regional Medical Center has not evaluated or treated any patients with coronavirus at the hospital to date, and there have been no confirmed cases in North Carolina, but safety measures are being taken out of an abundance of caution, said Lindsey Solomon, hospital communications coordinator.
“We are working closely with the Haywood County Health and Human Services Agency and following guidance from the CDC to ensure our hospital is prepared with the appropriate plans to detect, protect and respond should anyone in our community contract or be exposed to the novel coronavirus,” Solomon said. “We want to assure our community that our providers and clinical teams are well-trained and prepared to manage outbreaks of viruses and infectious diseases, including the coronavirus.”
Greg Shuping, who heads the Haywood County Emergency Services Department, said the public health director is the point person when it comes to contagious pathogens, and emphasized those on the front lines of emergency response are there to support him.
“We are sharing information he provides with the rest of our response community to take care of folks they encounter with these types of symptoms,” Shuping said. “This isn’t like a flood or something where we’re in charge. We’re here to support him (Public Health Director Patrick Johnson) in any way we can to make sure people are getting the latest knowledge they can have.”
Shuping said he message to all in the county is to use this situation as a way to be prepared in all the ways that have been promoted over the years.
As far as procedures, the corona virus response doesn’t differ from any other response involving contagious pathogens, but the latest directives about triaging has been helpful, he said.
By asking patients questions concerning the onset of the flu-like symptoms associated with COVID-19 and about travel, which happens through the 9-1-1 call center, Shuping said response teams know whether they should wear protective gear on a call.
“Whether you believe this is a threat to yourself or your family or not, it is a fantastic opportunity to be prepared to take care of yourself and your family by taking heed of the preparedness measures we in public health are already promoting,” Shuping said. “Good sanitation reduces exposure. There are a lot of folks that may not think this is very serious in Haywood County. My message to them is whether in trying to prevent cornoa virus or the stomach bug or flu, it’s just a good idea to adhere to these messages.”