Agencies, hospital prepared in case coronavirus reaches Boundary County

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BONNERS FERRY — When learning of a potential virus outbreak, there is a fine line between panic and preparedness.

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a virus responsible for the outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, and later identified on Jan. 7. Since that time, the death toll has risen to more than 100 in China.

This new virus has many people concerned as cases outside of China, including in the U.S., are starting to pop up.

The first case in the U.S. was confirmed in western Washington on Jan. 21, and eight days later there are five positive cases across the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, as of Jan. 29, there have been 68 cases that tested negative in the U.S., 92 cases pending, and 36 states with people under investigation for the coronavirus. The states with confirmed cases currently are Washington, Illinois, California and Arizona.

“Right now the situation is very fluid, obviously developing every day now,” said David Hylsky, staff epidemiologist at the Panhandle Health District. “They are learning more and more about the virus.”

While there is not a large risk to people in Boundary County, it is a situation that could change at any time, and local agencies and health care providers are prepared.

“You need to have either a travel history to China, or be in close contact with a confirmed case. Right now the closest case is the one over in Seattle, and that patient did have the travel history over to China,” said Hylsky. “It is not an airborne virus that is going to stay suspended out in the air for a long time. You would need to be in really close contact with a person, like within a really closed room, and have prolonged contact with that person.”

Because of this, the Panhandle Health District issued a health advisory to all of the physicians in the district, making sure that they are aware of the situation. Any patients they see, who have a travel history in the Wuhan, China, area in the last 14 days, who develop a respiratory illness would be considered a person under investigation.

“This individual should be instructed to self isolate and get some specimens that we can ship down to the state lab, who then forwards it on to CDC for testing,” said Hylsky.

Boundary Community Hospital (BCH) is prepared and monitoring the situation closely, stating that rural hospitals are on the frontline so they have to be prepared for anything that comes their way.

Chinna McKechnie, RN, Boundary Community Hospital Infection Prevention and Control Director, explained they ask every patient who checks in if they have traveled outside the U.S. in the past 30 days, as well as about their symptoms.

“If anyone has respiratory symptoms, they are asked to don a mask,” said McKechnie. “These initial steps were used to identify the patient in Seattle and stopped the spread from him to anyone else. That is our goal here.”

“As your community hospital, we are well prepared to handle infectious outbreaks with this novel coronavirus, and others like it (SARS and MERS), as well as influenza,” said Boundary Community Hospital CEO, Preston Becker. “We have long standing protocols in place as well as continuing staff education and training.”

According to the CDC website, no person-to-person spread of the virus has yet happened in the U.S. Despite that, the CDC calls this a serious public health threat.

“The fact that this virus has caused severe illness and sustained person-to-person spread in China is concerning, but it’s unclear how the situation in the United States will unfold at this time,” states the CDC on their website.

For the general public at this time Hylsky recommends checking the CDC’s travel site before traveling, as well as just practicing good hygiene to help mitigate the spread of viruses in general.

“Practice the general hand hygiene and cough etiquette — wash your hands really good in warm, soapy water, cover your cough or cough in your sleeve, and stay home when you are sick,” said Hylsky. “Those are the same great things to prevent influenza and other viruses.”

Andrew O’Neel, Boundary County Director of the Office of Emergency Management said that people can keep apprised of the ongoing situation locally by signing up for Nixle alerts through the website, or by texting their zip code “83805” to 888777.

“We’re aware of and are monitoring the new 2019-nCoV ‘Coronavirus’ and are in coordination with Panhandle Health District and local health care facilities to provide accurate information to the public,” said O’Neel. ”If necessary, County officials will communicate to residents through local media outlets, post to the Boundary County Emergency Management/Public Information Facebook page, and use Nixle.”

While the coronavirus outbreak is changing on a daily basis, and warrants close watching, Hylsky called it “extremely low risk at this point” for people in Boundary County. But in the scenario that it reaches here, there is a network of people and agencies ready to respond.

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