Governor Hutchinson will hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. Friday to discuss how Arkansas is preparing for a possible outbreak of the new coronavirus that is traveling the globe (it will be streamed live on YouTube). As part of that plan, the state Department of Health has begun working to adapt its pandemic flu response strategies to the virus, COVID-19.
“Now is not the time to panic,” health department Medical Director for Immunizations Dr. Jennifer Dillaha said, “but now is the time for schools to give thought to [risk], now is a good time for businesses to give that thought.”
That fear the virus is rising is evident in the phone calls the health department and doctors are getting from people who don’t feel well and believe they’ve contracted the new virus. But for now, at least, unless you’ve been in contact with someone from an area where the virus has infected people — China is the epicenter of the disease — it’s unlikely you’ve contracted COVID-19. Only one person in the United States has been confirmed to have the virus without a travel history or exposure to someone with the virus. The total number of COVID-19 cases in the United States stands at 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. (That does not include the American passengers rescued from the cruise ship Diamond Princess.)
The health department is providing guidance on COVID-19 to doctors and clinicians across the state as well as the state Department of Education. Its advice:
A person with flu symptoms who has traveled to countries where the virus has spread should don a mask before entering a hospital or clinic where other patients are present. Physicians who treat patients who present with flu symptoms — cough, fever, congestion — and a travel history are advised to wear face-fitting N95 masks, gown and gloves and, if possible, see the patient in an isolation room that prevents airborne transmission.
If a patient is suspected of having the new virus, doctors will take a nasopharyngeal swab — “way into your nose; it’s not very pleasant,” Dillaha said — and one from the back of the throat along with a sample of blood serum for testing. The CDC is doing all testing now, but hopes to make kits available soon so states can do their own testing. Those kits could come as soon as next week, Dillaha said.
Should there be a community outbreak of COVID-19, the health department will work with “community leaders” and the county judge to lessen the spread. That might include canceling meetings, special events, church services, schools and other events where people gather. (The Washington Post and other outlets are reporting that Japan has closed its schools.)
COVID-19 is not an airborne disease like tuberculosis. Instead, it spreads through droplets from coughing or sneezing. “You have to be within six feet … to be exposed by those droplets, or you can pick it up from surfaces where droplets have landed,” Dillaha said. (It’s uncertain how long the virus survives on surfaces. It is also unknown how heat and humidity affect viability, despite President Trump’s suggestion that COVID-19 will succumb in April.)
Because the incubation period for the virus is thought to be two weeks, those who may have come in contact with infected people should stay home until they are sure they have not been infected. Persons who have been diagnosed will be held in isolation.
The virus is different from the flu in several ways: Though it has a higher mortality rate (2.3 percent in China compared to 0.1 percent for season flu), it is less dangerous than influenza to children. Of the more than 81,000 cases worldwide, 3,000 people have died, most of them in China. The vast majority of infected people have only mild symptoms and survive.
Social media outlets have put out false information out about the new coronavirus, Dillaha noted. But Dillaha was reluctant to even discuss the false information, saying repeating the myths could help their spread. So we went to the CDC and other websites to identify some of the false info that’s gotten out.
Here is how you DO NOT get the new virus, COVID-19: By opening a package from China. By coming into contact with a person of Asian descent. From a pet. From the air.
And these measures WILL NOT protect you from COVID-19: Using a hand dryer or a UV lamp thinking it will kill the virus. Spraying your body with alcohol or chlorine or bathing it in sesame oil. The pneumonia vaccine. Antibiotics. Eating garlic.