On Tuesday the United States Center for Disease Control announced that the spread of the coronavirus in the United States appears “inevitable.”
Although the risk of Iowa being affected by the respiratory illness is generally low and as of Friday afternoon, more than 60 cases have been confirmed in the United States by the CDC. Despite the still low numbers in this country, medical facilities throughout Story County have been preparing for over a month, officials said.
Beginning in the middle of January, Mary Greeley Medical Center (MGMC) “began screening and regularly meeting about the (disease),” said Leanne Hillier, the infection control coordinator at the hospital.
Other facilities in Story County such as McFarland Clinic and Story County Medical Center took similar precautions around the same time, as it was recommended by the CDC and Iowa Department of Public Health. Implementations included asking each patient basic questions such as if they had recently traveled outside of the United States to countries impacted by the virus like China, South Korea, Italy, Japan or Iran, and what symptoms they were experiencing.
Common symptoms associated with the coronavirus somewhat mimic pneumonia with shortness of breath, trouble breathing and a fever, said Dr. Dan Fulton, an infectious disease specialist at McFarland clinics.
If a patient were to walk into Mary Greeley’s emergency room and met the criteria of someone potentially carrying the coronavirus, there is a specific protocol to be followed. The patient will be immediately escorted into a negative air flow room and be isolated from the general public, Hillier said.
Before the medical professionals screen the individual, they are required to put on protective equipment like N95 masks or respirators and hospital gowns before entering the room, Hillier said. They will contact the Department of Health and will be walked through the testing process to determine whether or not someone is infected.
As of Friday afternoon there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Story County or in Iowa. However, Mary Greeley has had to use this protocol at least once in relation to the virus, Hillier said.
While the COVID-19 strain that is currently spreading around the world is the center of attention, it’s not necessarily unique.
“There are seven coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of them are quite common and two others have caused pandemics — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS),” said Alison Sebbag, Story County Medical Center’s infection control nurse in an email statement to the Tribune.
Although the disease is different from the other coronaviruses and other diseases like Ebola, the swine flu and Zika, the emergency protocol used by medical facilities is essentially the same, officials said.
“There are differences in the virus, so there’s different types of isolation needed. However, the elements are essentially the same for any type of pandemic preparedness and are really what we lean on, for any situation like this,” Hillier said.
Even though specific procedures were only put in place over the past month, there is constant communication about preparing for pandemics like the coronavirus between medical professionals at the local, state and federal level, which is vital, Caitlin Pedati, a state medical director and epidemiologist at the Iowa Department of Public Health said.
“Public health works very closely with our partners at the local, state and federal level to prepare for, and we make these kinds of preparations, you know, not just over the past several weeks and months, but really these efforts go back over the past years or decades,” Pedati said. “We develop communication plans and we have drills and exercises to help us practice.”
Most of the exercises are focused on influenza because it reappears annually, Pedati said.
At Iowa State University on Friday, officials announced the university had restricted travel to South Korea, following CDC guidelines.
In the statement from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen, the university said its risk management office, Study Abroad Center, and Thielen Student Health Center continue to monitor reports from public health and security organizations to determine whether to suspend study abroad programs.
With Spring Break just a few weeks away, university officials also were asking students who plan to travel to closely monitor alerts and information from the U.S. State Department and CDC before embarking on a trip.
“This information can change on a daily basis, so it’s important to be aware of restrictions, screenings and quarantines that may affect travel to and from your destination,” ISU officials said in the statement.
While medical and university officials work to prepare for a possible pandemic, they acknowledge an abundance of caution is necessary.
“It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared,” said Fulton, the infectious disease specialist at McFarland Clinic.