While 2019-nCoV (coronavirus) is new, hospitals have lots of experience handling emerging infectious diseases. Think of the seasonal flu. It varies year to year in both its potency and molecular design. The current flu season officially began September 29, 2019, and was declared prevalent by the New York State Health Commissioner on December 5, 2019. In terms of reach, this season’s flu is infinitely more widespread in the United States than the coronavirus. Consider that there are 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and 89,597 confirmed cases of the flu in New York State this season. At present, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York State.
But that does not mean there is a zero threat from this pathogen.
Hospitals remain vigilant and are prepared to handle any patient who presents with coronavirus. All facilities follow strict infectious disease protocols that begin with immediately isolating the patient so that staff and the public are kept safe. Thanks to the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), states have access to coronavirus test kits, which expedite diagnosis. That’s important as anti-viral drugs and supportive therapies are the best defenses we have to fight this virus. Once diagnosed with the coronavirus, rest, fluids, and fever reducers are in order. This is the same treatment plan in place for the seasonal flu.
Hospitals learned many lessons about containing an infectious disease during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. With one confirmed Ebola case in New York State and only a handful of other cases noted in the United States, the CDC, state health departments, and local county health departments lost no time in preparing for more widespread disease occurrence. This positioned them well to deal with the current coronavirus and other novel and emerging infectious diseases. Today, in every hospital emergency department, patients are asked whether they returned from recent travel outside the United States whether or not there is a current pandemic in place. The New York State Health Department also requires hospitals to hold surprise emergency preparedness drills on a regular basis.
During a pandemic, such as the coronavirus, communication is key. The World Health Organization (WHO) deemed the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on January 29, 2020 and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared it a public health emergency two days later. As a result, hospital staff have been in constant communication with the CDC, the state health department, and their local county health departments to ensure they have the most up-to-date information about the spread of the disease and that proper infectious disease control procedures and methods are in place.
At the very local level, hospitals and the broader healthcare community keep in touch. In the Hudson Valley – MACE – Mutual Aid Coordinating Entity – works cooperatively to keep tabs on regional supplies and personnel resources. In Suffolk County, that task falls to the Suffolk County ESF 8 Group (Emergency Support Function) and in Nassau County it is the Health and Medical Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (HMMACG).
But back to the coronavirus. Just what is it, and how do we keep ourselves safe. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in 2003. Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure, and even death. As the coronavirus is so new, scientists and epidemiologists are working to pinpoint the virus’ transmission process, which appears to be airborne, and other characteristics of this novel infectious agent. While they make progress, the best defense right now is to frequently wash one’s hands, cough and sneeze into one’s elbow, stay home if any signs of viral infection emerge, and place a call to one’s physician for further instructions. The same advice public health officials give for combating the flu.