WAHOO – The coronavirus is coming, but there are ways to prepare and be safe, according to local health experts.
The Saunders Medical Center and Three Rivers Health Department held a public forum Monday night on the coronavirus, which has been officially named COVID 19.
Drs. Nicole Akers and Lorance Newburn from SMC and Amy Roberts, with Three Rivers, spoke to a crowd of about 40 people at Wahoo High School about the infamous virus, which has spread to 53 countries including the United States.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Akers.
The virus originated in China but is not isolated to people from Asia, one piece of misinformation that exists.
Akers said the virus is spread by person-to-person contact as droplets are spread through sneezing or coughing. The virus can be also stay on a hard surface for four hours.
Symptoms can be difficult to diagnose, Akers said, because they are similar to other illnesses like the common cold. The symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
“This is where we struggle as providers, I think, because the symptoms are quite vague,” she said.
It is a strain of the cold virus that has mutated into a form not seen before, and as such, there are no antibodies built up to fight it, Akers added.
Newburn told the audience there are several preventative measures that can be taken to avoid the virus.
“The best way to prevent getting infected is by avoiding sick people,” he said.
He suggested staying at least six feet away from other people.
“So going to church is going to be tough,” he said as the audience chuckled.
While the tone was lighthearted, the message was serious. Newburn said hand washing with soap for about 20 seconds is a must and people should try to avoid touching their face. Gel sanitizers can also be effective if they are 60 percent or more alcohol.
“Those are going to be the main things,” he said.
People who have symptoms should cover their cough or sneeze by doing so into their arm or covering their mouth and nose with a tissue. Dispose of used tissues in a lined trash can and wash hands immediately after.
Newburn encouraged people to wash their hands and face when they get home after being outdoors or in public as a precautionary measure. He also suggested daily cleaning of surfaces that are touched frequently, like counter tops, phones, keyboards, toilets and doorknobs.
“Any surface that you think might be infected and you touch often,” he added.
Regular cleaning products will eradicate the virus.
“It could be killed with just your usual topical products so go for it,” Newburn said.
If you are sick, stay home from work, the health professional stated. There is no vaccine yet for the virus, and a flu shot will not be effective, Newburn continued.
Many people are wearing facemasks to prevent spread of the disease. Newburn said they will not protect against the virus, although he did say the mask could keep a person from touching their face with their hands.
SMC has set up a plan for dealing with the virus. They ask anyone who is sick with symptoms similar to the virus to call their clinic or hospital first before coming in.
A nurse will ask several questions that will help determine if there is an authentic risk of COVID 19 infection. That includes information about recent travel history.
“We can walk you through whether or not you had legitimate exposure,” Newburn said.
If the hospital staff determines the patient may have the virus, they will be asked to come to the emergency room, where a health care professional will meet them at the door and take them to a special room.
Once a patient tests positive for the virus, there is no actual treatment, Akers said. Unless they need breathing treatments or other respiratory care, the patient will be sent home.
“The safest place is at home,” she added.
The incubation period for COVID 19 is two to 14 days, but averages around five days, Newburn said. Some patients may be asked to self-quarantine for two weeks, as suggested by the Centers for Disease Control as a precautionary measure.
At this point, the disease is not affecting children. Newburn said only 2.4 percent of the cases are found in children under age 18.
However, the virus is present in older people, 50 years and older, and is more challenging for patients with chronic health conditions like diabetes or heart disease.
“So if you’re one of those people, you really want to protect yourself,” Newburn said.
The disease can also be spread from animals to humans.
“They believe this originated from an animal,” said Newburn.
Newburn warned the public that unscrupulous people may try to use the virus as a way to operate scams.
“People are going to take advantage of this,” he said.
Three Rivers Health Department is working with state health officials to actively monitor Nebraskans who have self-reported travel to countries affected by the virus. They contact the person twice a day to check on their vital signs like temperature.
“The goal of this is to hopefully catch any cases early,” said Roberts, disease surveillance coordinator for Three Rivers.
Because few Nebraskans travel to China and the other countries that are seeing high levels of the virus, the risk of infection remains low, Roberts said.
However, if the risk increases, the health department suggests being prepared.
“We do believe there will probably be some community spread within the U.S.,” Roberts said.
Create a household plan of action that includes knowing the policies and procedures if local schools are closed or businesses shut down. Put together an emergency supply kit, something every family should have on hand for a disaster such as a tornado.
The kit should include a 90-day supply of medicine if possible, plus non-perishable food, Roberts said.
Most important of all, don’t panic.
“There are things you can do to protect yourself,” said Newburn.
And know that the virus will travel its course eventually.
“This is going to pass,” Newburn said.
Julie Rezac, interim CEO, said SMC organized Monday night’s forum in response to the large number of calls the physicians and nurses have fielded about the virus.
“There seems to be a little panic in the community,” she said. “It’s also good for the community to know the hospital is on top of it.”