UPDATE: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending against all travel to China and people traveling from China to the U.S. are facing 14-day quarantines as the number of deaths tied to the new coronavirus has climbed to more than 2,004 people with more than 74,185 cases reported in China and more than 26 countries.
The World Health Organization has declared a formal “public health emergency,” a move that requires all countries to take action to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the official name for the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak.
In the U.S. so far, there are 29 confirmed cases, including 14 people who recently were evacuated from a cruise ship in Asia and were brought back to the U.S. Among the first 15 who tested positive in the U.S., all had either traveled to Wuhan, China, the city where the coronavirus originated or had contracted the illness from a spouse.
Health officials here think it is unlikely that there will be a major outbreak of the new coronavirus in the U.S., but to be safe, experts in Colorado are bracing for any cases here.
Preparing for a new coronavirus outbreak
“We’ve been training for this since the original SARS outbreak in 2003 (another deadly coronavirus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and more recently, we improved our ability to care for these types of patients with the outbreak of Ebola,” Little said.
UCHealth experts have been keeping an eye on COVID-19 in China since early December and proactively increased screening protocols at all UCHealth facilities starting on January 15.
Anyone visiting a UCHealth hospital or clinic will be asked if they have traveled outside of the U.S. in the past 30 days and could have been infected with the new type of coronavirus that emerged from a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan, China.
Coronavirus symptoms and screenings
If a patient has a fever and a pneumonia-like respiratory illness or symptoms of other infectious diseases like the flu, that person will be isolated and staff members will use protocols like masks, gowns and gloves to keep providers and other patients safe.
“We always hope for the best and plan for the worst,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, an expert on infectious diseases and medical director for Infection Control and Prevention at University of Colorado Hospital.
“When we started hearing that there was a pneumonia of unclear origins in China, it set off all sorts of alarms,” Barron said.
Learning from the past
Health officials around the world learned critical lessons during earlier coronavirus outbreaks. SARS also originated in Asia, then spread around the world. It killed nearly 10% of those who were infected, or 774 of more than 8,000 who tested positive for the virus. It’s impossible to know yet how many people are suffering from COVID-19. It is spreading fast and health officials know that it’s spreading from person to person and that it can be contagious before individuals are showing signs of illness. Thus far, however, it appears to be less deadly than the SARS coronavirus was.
Barron said coronaviruses are very common and can cause simple illnesses like the common cold, but because SARS and a similar coronavirus that struck the Middle East, MERS, proved to be so contagious and dangerous, she and UCHealth’s emergency preparedness experts chose to increase screening for patients out of an abundance of caution.
“We turned on our alerts in mid-January,” Barron said.
Researchers believe SARS started with transmission from bats to humans. And MERS jumped from camels to humans. The two viruses then spread easily from human to human.
Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are working to understand exactly how COVID-19 jumped from an animal to a person. Researchers will work to develop a vaccine, but they do not have one yet. That means it’s all the more important for health officials throughout the world to do all they can to halt the spread of the disease.
Standard protocols for contagious illnesses
Health officials have standard protocols when anyone with an apparently contagious illness arrives at a health care facility.
“We put them in isolation. It’s similar if they have the flu. Anyone coming in contact with that patient will be wearing a gown, gloves and a mask. We do that if we suspect you have any virus,” Barron said. “It’s assumed that if you have the flu, you can give me the flu. But, I won’t know until I test you.”
U.S. Health officials are now screening anyone arriving from China at multiple U.S. airports and UCHealth providers will similarly be vigilant for anyone who has recently traveled to Asia or has been around friends and family members who recently traveled overseas.
“Let’s say you came in and had been in this area of China (the Wuhan region), I start treating you for the flu,” Barron said. “That still would be the most likely cause of illness. But, if we determined that you didn’t have the flu, then we’d start wondering, ‘Hmm. Maybe we need to test you for this new virus.’”
How to help prevent the spread of COVID-19
In terms of prevention, anyone with plans to travel to Asia should take precautions, like avoiding large public markets, wearing a mask and avoiding contact with anyone who is showing signs of illness. Click here to learn more about travel recommendations.
“Avoid people who are sick. Wash your hands regularly. Wear a mask if you are around someone who is sick. If you are having any kind of symptoms that are concerning you, make sure your doctor knows where you have traveled. Maybe you didn’t go to China, but someone in your household did. And now you are sick.
“You don’t need to be hyper vigilant. Just be aware.”
As for health care experts, know that they have detailed policies and procedures for preventing the spread of contagious illnesses. And, they regularly practice how to care for a patient with a highly contagious disease.
Said Barron: “We are prepared for this.”