What Utah health officials want you to know about coronavirus

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, speaks at a Department of Health news conference spreading information on the novel coronavirus, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020.

There have been around 82,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. There have been 60 Americans who have been diagnosed with it, and none, so far, in Utah.

But preparations are being made for when — not if — there’s a case of coronavirus in the state, Utah Department of Health officials and executives from Utah’s hospital chains said Thursday.

[Read more: Complete coverage of the coronavirus]

“We will get cases and we will get community transmission,” warned state epidemiologist Angela Dunn, the health department’s point person on the coronavirus in Utah. “But we are doing everything we can to slow the spread of it, and ensure that our vulnerable populations — those who are going to be most at risk for severe disease and consequences — are protected.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency overseeing the response to the coronavirus, announced that a new case of the respiratory illness had been confirmed in California. The patient has not been outside of the United States recently or had contact with a known carrier of the virus — which is a possible sign the virus has begun to spread within U.S. communities, health officials said.

Three Utahns have tested positive for coronavirus elsewhere, following an outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. Two of those patients were quarantined in Japan; a third was taken to a military base in California, where he was quarantined and diagnosed this week.

Dunn talked to reporters Thursday about what health officials are planning, how prepared Utah’s health care system is, and what the public should and should not be doing.

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Q: What are your general concerns about the coronavirus in Utah?

Dunn: For people living in Utah, the risk is still very low. But we want people to start understanding what that next level is, with regards to what public health will be doing — mass gathering cancelation, school cancelations, church cancelations, those types of things — so people aren't surprised when or if they do happen. There isn't anything necessarily that people need to be doing personally to prepare. So they should just start thinking through what life might be like if there is widespread COVID-19 in Utah.

Q: Do you worry that Utah’s health care system isn’t prepared?

Dunn: No. Our health care systems are fantastic and they have been hand-in-hand with us since the beginning of this and they are very much on top of it, and doing everything in their power to be prepared. It is definitely a team sport. Executives from Utah’s health care chains gave similar assurances to reporters Thursday. “We have had time to prepare, and we are ready,” said epidemiologist Jeanmarie Mayer from University of Utah Health, echoing a sentiment stated by officials from HCA/MountainStar, Intermountain Healthcare and Stewart Healthcare.

Q: What should employers be doing?

Dunn: The advice we’re giving them is: if you have an employee that seems symptomatic and has these exposures, call us, allow them to go home and self-isolate. And provide paid leave for them. We don’t want people having to take unpaid time off to be able to self-isolate. We want them to be compliant to isolation in order to prevent the spread of disease. And part of that is ensuring that they still are able to earn the same money that they need while they were at work.

Q: Given the transmissibility that we’ve seen in China, have officials calculated what the worst-case scenario is, in terms of the number of patients we could have in the United States?

Dunn: In public health, we always plan for the worst-case scenario and hope for the best. So we’re not planning for specific numbers. What we do is plan for situations where our health care systems are completely overwhelmed with the patients coming in. How do we get extra space, extra staff and extra supplies to be able to care for patients appropriately and safely?

Q: What would be the threshold that would trigger school closures and other cancellations?

Dunn: If we start getting widespread community transmission — and that means that almost everybody with a cough and a fever is sick with COVID-19 — that means that our quarantine and isolation measures don’t work, because you can’t isolate in quarantine individuals at that point. That’s when we start looking towards these mass gathering cancelations.

Q: If a person thinks they have contracted COVID-19, what’s the procedure?

Dunn: You would call your provider first, and they would recommend you probably come in through a back entrance so you don’t come in through the waiting room. You enter and [go] directly into an airborne isolation room — and all that means is the room has its own air circulation, so when you cough, those droplets aren’t [circulating]. Your providers would be in protective gear [a mask, a gown, and potentially a face shield] which would prevent your respiratory droplets from getting into them. The rest of your visit would be just as normal as anything else.

Q: How do you determine who the patient has been in contact with?

Dunn: When we’re doing contact tracing, we ask people where they’ve been. ... We have a lot of techniques to help jog people’s memories: talking with family members, using calendars. And then we assess the risk at each one of those events and determine how do we contact the people at those events. Do we need to do mass notification? Do we get contact information for all those people? And then we reach out to individuals. It’s an intensive process, but it’s something we do all the time.

Q: What about treating people through smartphone apps, so people don’t have to go to a clinic?

Dunn: Most [health care providers] have that telehealth ability, so that patients can be evaluated for their symptoms without having to go into a clinic, or be in a waiting room and potentially expose other people.

Q: With COVID-19 coming in during the regular cold and flu season, what precautions should people be taking?

Dunn: Influenza is still the major concern for all Utahns right now. People should get their flu shot. And then, again, the same precautions: stay home when you’re sick, use good hand hygiene, try not to be around people who are ill. The thing that makes COVID-19 so concerning is that we don’t have treatment and antivirals, and we don’t have a vaccine.

Q: Are there things people in Utah should not be doing?

Dunn: There’s no sense in individuals stockpiling N95 [respiratory] masks or face masks. For the general public, that’s just not a useful tactic at this point, because face masks in particular are only for those who are sick. … Things like stocking up on food and toilet paper and all that sort of stuff isn’t necessary in this situation. Our water supply is still going to be good. We’re all going to have electricity. This isn’t a natural disaster. … What we’re seeing in the general public is rumors, misinformation and discrimination. And that is not helpful to containing a disease and it’s not helpful to containing panic.

Q: What kind of rumors are going around that are damaging?

Dunn: The most recent one was with the Shen Yun dancers [now performing at Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City]; there was rumors flying around that they were all sick with COVID-19. And we need to stop it. They are a dance troupe from New York City, and they’ve only been in North America. … This is a scary time. But what I really want the Utah public to know is that with any disease, COVID-19 is not based on race or ethnicity. It is about us and us helping each other out. And those thoughts of discrimination and ostracizing people based on race ethnicity only hurts the situation.