Coronavirus outbreak in U.S. inevitable

A health worker wears a protective suit on Tuesday at the infectious disease clinic in Zagreb, Croatia, where the first coronavirus patient in Croatia has been hospitalized.

State and local public health officials have ramped up preparative efforts for a U.S. coronavirus outbreak after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that the spread of the deadly virus within the U.S. is inevitable.

Though China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, was quick to implement massive travel restrictions, door-to-door welfare checks, huge isolation wards and lockdowns of entire cities — which bought the world valuable time to prepare for the global spread of the virus — a burning question remains: Has enough been done to prepare for a potential pandemic?

“Ultimately, we will see community spread in this country,” Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases told reporters on a call Tuesday. “It’s not a question of if but rather a question of when and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

As troubling outbreaks have now emerged in Italy, South Korea and Iran — in conjunction with thousands of health care workers, largely in China, also becoming infected with the virus — Tuesday’s warning from the CDC marks a dramatic escalation in tone from recent weeks.

As of Tuesday, more than 900 cases had been reported in South Korea, 300 cases had been reported in Italy, Iran had nearly 100 cases and Croatia saw its first confirmed case. There are just 57 confirmed U.S. cases, according to the CDC, and there are still zero confirmed coronavirus cases in the Gem State. That hasn’t, however, stopped hospitals and public health officials from preparing for the worst-case scenarios while hoping for the best possible outcomes.

The majority of measures being implemented to contain the virus in the U.S. include additional training for health care staff who will be on the frontlines of a U.S. outbreak, increased availability for protective and preventive medical supplies like face masks and hand sanitizer, and constant interagency communication, health officials say.

Kathryn Turner, a deputy state epidemiologist for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, says state public health officials are working vigorously and proactively in conjunction with many partners, including the CDC and Idaho’s seven health districts, to prevent the spread of coronavirus throughout the state.

“The main focus for us at the state level is monitoring new developments in the spread of the virus both domestically and internationally,” Turner said. “We are very involved with the communication around what is happening and are working with the CDC and other states as well as the public health districts in Idaho to make sure we are all on the same page and moving forward in the same direction.”

Turner said the announcement from the CDC that the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. is inevitable has had a minimal impact on how Idaho public health officials have been preparing for the virus, in that the state’s response has been urgent from the onset of the outbreak in late December.

“We are not surprised by the CDC’s announcement and we are definitely equal to the task,” Turner said about preparing for a U.S. outbreak. “Watching what has been going on internationally and seeing travel advisories reach more significant levels in various locales after just 24 hours, it’s pretty obvious that the virus is moving rather quickly.”

Outreach communication and partnership preparedness has been a central focus for the Southeastern Idaho Public Health department, according to epidemiologist Jeff Doerr, who says he has been participating in conference calls with national, state and local health officials at least twice weekly since the coronavirus initially surfaced. While there have been no infections reported throughout the entire state, Southeast Idaho is no stranger to those experiencing the coronavirus first-hand.

One Pocatello native, 34-year-old Spencer Case, recently escaped Wuhan, China, and just returned to Southeast Idaho after spending two weeks in quarantine at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco. CNN reported Tuesday that its San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, has declared a state of emergency in the city to better prepare for the potential arrival of coronavirus.

Though there have been no confirmed cases in San Francisco either, Breed said they are taking the potential risk of a American coronavirus outbreak seriously and that the declaration frees up resources needed to accelerate planning, increase staffing and ensure future reimbursement, CNN reported.

Kent Frasure, another Pocatello native and son of Idaho lawmaker Evan Frasure, is aboard the coronavirus-infested Diamond Princess docked in Japan and is eagerly awaiting news that his wife, Rebecca, who was one of the first passengers aboard the cruise ship to be diagnosed with the virus, is infection-free and can return home with her husband to their family.

NBC News reports that the majority of the 57 Americans diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, are among repatriated residents who were passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Some of the local preparation for a coronavirus outbreak in Idaho has involved monitoring individuals and their whereabouts, including people such as Case who, although having been cleared of the virus, were directly exposed in some way, Turner said.

“The CDC and by extension the Department of Health and Welfare are tracking the total number of people currently being monitored, which are people who may have been traveling in China and are now in Idaho,” Turner said. “There is data for those who have been monitored and are no longer being monitored, how many people have been tested and how many confirmed cases.”

Moreover, Turner says she has been in constant communication with community-based organizations including schools and universities at the state and local level since January about the potential of an outbreak in Idaho.

“We have provided guidance and information about community mitigation and resources for whatever it is they need,” Turner said. “Public health is really here to support everyone else, that is our job.”

Turner said that since there is currently no vaccine or specific antiviral treatment for the coronavirus, it is important to remember to take everyday preventive actions that are always recommended to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including:

Avoid people who are sick and if you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60 percent alcohol. Make sure you are up-to-date on all recommended vaccinations.

Louise Zalusky-Kamm, manager for infection prevention at Portneuf Medical Center, says that at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak overseas, PMC implemented hospital-wide training about preventing the transmission of the virus while handling potentially infected persons and also put up informative posters throughout the facility.

“One of our biggest concerns is to make sure our health care workers are in a safe position to take care of other members in the community,” Zalusky-Kamm said.

Moreover, Zalusky-Kamm says the hospital has put out additional face masks and other protective gear, and she has noticed more people using them at the hospital as well as individuals taking masks home for their personal use.

While some might think Idaho’s geographic location and smaller population density would lessen the state’s exposure level to the virus, Turner echoed Messonnier’s sentiments, in that it’s not a matter of if but when the coronavirus reaches Idaho and how significant it will be when it does.

“Pathogens don’t care where you live and they don’t see borders,” Turner said. “We have many people who travel to neighboring states, have family in other states or kids that go to universities in other states and viruses don’t care where you live. If they are introduced to the area then the population is at risk of transmission.”

Turner continued, “We don’t have a lot of population density here, which very theoretically could protect residents from ongoing transmission, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report