As the novel coronavirus continues to spread from China to other countries, local hospitals and the Washington County Public Safety Department are bracing for a potential outbreak that could result in a flood of sick patients.
“I think that anywhere you are in the United States, there’s a possibility that anybody can encounter a coronavirus patient,” said Lisa Carp, infection control nurse at Allegheny Hospital Network’s Canonsburg Hospital.
No one in Pennsylvania has yet tested positive for the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, but Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine said Wednesday that the state is taking steps to make sure Pennsylvanians are prepared for a widespread infection.
The federal Centers for Disease Control expects cases to continue to be confirmed in upcoming days and weeks, and is urging the public to act to prevent the spread of the virus.
On Saturday, health officials in the state of Washington confirmed the first death from the virus in the United States.
As of Saturday, there were more than 85,000 cases in 56 countries, including more than 2,900 deaths. In the United States, there have been more than 60 cases of the respiratory illness, which has symptoms similar to the flu – fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Officials at Canonsburg, Monongahela Valley and WHS Washington and WHS Greene hospitals said they have emergency plans in place, and are fully prepared to respond to any cases.
The emergency plans include instructions on a variety of issues: how to triage patients, how to allocate limited resources such as ventilators, and how to convert hallways and cafeterias into treatment areas.
“Washington Health System has a detailed emergency preparedness plan, which is constantly updated as illnesses, such as the coronavirus, occur,” said Stephanie Wagoner, WHS spokesperson.
Canonsburg Hospital’s Carp pointed out hospitals have dealt with epidemics before, such H1N1 swine flu virus that struck the United States from April 2009 through April 2010, and are constantly working to be ready for the unexpected.
The CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases of swine flu, 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths.
“We need to be prepared for anything – Ebola, H1N1, you never know whats coming to the United States, so you have to be prepared for any situation,” said Carp. “We’re right in the middle of flu season, and then coronavirus comes along.”
Washington County has had a plan for dealing with pandemics since the H1N1 outbreak.
The county set up a vaccination clinic at the fairgrounds, said Jeff Yates, county public safety director.
“I realize there isn’t a vaccine for COVID-19, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one before too much time elapsed,” he said.
Clinical trials, however, take time.
In the meantime, Yates said the plan to cope with a disease outbreak seeks to “maintain the continuity of county government. We have essential positions here. We can’t shut down the county for weeks at a time.
“There are people who provide services outside to the community who would have to be outfitted with masks and gloves.”
Most of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties do not have their own health departments, but, like Washington, Greene and Fayette, rely on the state, which Yates said has been responsive.
“We just have to plan for the worst-case scenario and hope that doesn’t happen,” Yates said.
Area hospitals are following CDC guidelines, and monitoring CDC and state Department of Health updates.
They have tightened screening protocols, including asking people if they have traveled to affected areas within the past 14 days or were exposed to someone who has COVID-19.
If a patient walks into hospitals in the area and potentially has the virus, he or she will be masked and immediately placed in isolation to protect other patients and staff.
Canonsburg and the other area hospitals have negative pressure rooms – special rooms that have negative air pressure to control the spread of infection – to treat patients.
Carp said the hospital would draw a specimen and send it to the CDC for testing.
The local hospitals also are addressing training for doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel who will be treating patients or might have contact with them.
It includes practicing the proper way to put on protective gear – masks, goggles, gloves and gowns – so they can care for sick patients without catching or spreading the virus.
Right now, local hospital officials believe they have the necessary medical supplies, but are concerned about the virus disrupting the supply of medical equipment from hard-hit areas, including China.
Allegheny Health System has taken an inventory of supplies at all of the hospitals and satellites in its system and can allocate equipment, medication and supplies where they are most needed.
But, there is little they can do about supply shortages that can occur.
“As far as shortages, we’d have to deal with that on a day-to-day basis,” said Carp.
Andrew Bilinsky, spokesperson for Mon Valley Hospital, said Southwestern Pennsylvania currently remains low risk for novel coronavirus, which is believed to have a mortality rate of about 2%.
But, hospitals know how quickly an outbreak can evolve.
Local experts encourage people to practice good hygiene habits, like washing their hands and covering their mouths when they cough.
Said Yates, “If you’re sick, stay home. Stay away from people. Hand wash at least 20 seconds and use hand sanitizer. Ideally, people should do both. Sanitizers with higher alcohol content are more effective.”
Carp encouraged the public to remain calm and stay informed.
“I don’t think people need to panic. I think they need to be informed and be aware, and know what they can do,” she said. “Communities are preparing for this. We just have to remain calm and assess our situation, and we have to work together so we can handle this.”