Increased screening aims to prevent coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S.

Jan. 22, 2020
women wears medical masks to keep safe during this new coronavirus outbreak.
The new coronavirus outbreak is prompting hospitals and airports around the U.S. to do increased screening. To prevent coronavirus or other infectious illnesses, wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap and avoid crowds. Photo: Getty Images.

UPDATED: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending against unneccessary travel to China, South Korea, Iran and parts of Italy and Japan. People traveling from affected areas to the U.S. are facing 14-day quarantines as the number of deaths tied to the new coronavirus has increased in the U.S. and around the world.

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The World Health Organization has declared a formal “public health emergency” and have categorized the outbreak as a pandemic.

Unfortunately, the illness now known as COVID-19, is spreading throughout the U.S. and in Colorado. But, UCHealth officials are accustomed to caring for people who are sick while keeping others well. Our experts are braced to help people cope with this difficult time.

Preparing for a new coronavirus outbreak

“We are ready,” said Dr. Charles Little, medical director for emergency preparedness at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

Dr. Charles Little headshot
Dr. Charles Little is an expert on emergency preparedness. Photo: UCHealth.

“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.

A photo of Dr. Michelle Barron
Dr. Michelle Barron is an expert in infectious diseases. Photo by UCHealth.

“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.

Barron’s advice for staying well remains similar to her recommendations for avoiding the flu and stomach illnesses, like norovirus.

“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.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.