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Local health officials prepare for next phase of coronavirus outbreak

Local health officials prepare for next phase of coronavirus outbreak

As outbreaks blossom across the nation, state and local officials are looking ahead to what potentially could be the next phase of a coronavirus epidemic, which would focus on urging people to limit social interactions and dispatching health investigators to track down sources of the disease to limit its spread.

“Right now our message to the community is how you can prepare in case there is community spread,” said Sarah Mattes, a spokeswoman for Public Health Madison & Dane County. “But we’re not necessarily asking people to cancel large gatherings.”

So far, health officials have been urging people to wash hands frequently, not only as a preventative measure for coronavirus, but to guard against the flu, which is in high season.

The state is also asking people arriving from countries hard-hit by the disease — primarily China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea — self-quarantine and monitor for symptoms.  

If an outbreak were to occur, the Mattes said the health department is preparing to issue a new recommendation: Stay home.

“For general public messaging it would be pretty similar,” she said, “ask employers to work from home, wash hands, social distancing.”

As of Friday afternoon, only one case of infection from coronavirus, now called COVID-19, has been discovered in the state, according to a tally on the state Department of Health Services website. On Feb. 5 health officials said a Dane County resident, recently arrived from China, tested positive for coronavirus. That person recovered after a quarantine period, apparently without spreading the disease.

Thirty-one people have been tested negative, and 12 were still awaiting results.

Mattes would not say if any of the pending cases are from Dane County.

“We’re just really sensitive about causing panic where there doesn’t need to be any,” she said.

Local preparations come as bleak news emerges from pockets of the country where the disease has spread.

Coronavirus has been detected in at least 250 people in 21 states and caused 14 deaths. The number of people infected has tripled in New York City in just two days. In Seattle, which sits in a region where the an outbreak has claimed 13 lives, the local economy is getting hammered as consumers limit their activities and tech firms, including retail giant Amazon, tell their employees to work from home.

Public concern is evident in the number of phone calls health care organizations are getting.

“We’re dealing with a pretty high volume of calls on a daily basis, and we also have a lot of calls from community businesses asking for some advice about their operations as well,” said Mattes.

The department also has a coronavirus hotline, set up after the Dane County resident contracted the virus, but after a few days call volume decreased and callers are now greeted with a recorded message.

That’s not the case at UW Health, where a hotline that went live on Wednesday is getting about 100 calls a day. The move to create the hotline was in part prompted by numerous calls to UW Health’s clinics.

“We wanted to provide a resource to the community to answer their questions by healthcare professionals who can provide accurate and up to date information,” Kumlien said in an email.

UW Health is preparing to scale up testing and plans to conducting medical visits via video, which limits physical contact and allows access to providers from home.

The organization is also keeping a close eye on protective equipment, particularly masks, for which there is a nationwide shortage as people buy them up in hope of guarding against the disease. Officials say masks are ineffective as a prevention measure and demand has created a scarcity for those who are actually contagious, as well as the health care professionals who treat them.

Statewide, health officials are gearing up for an increase in testing as the federal government, after botching the first round of test kits, gins up supply.

A delay, caused by flaws in the kits that led to inconclusive results, as well as restrictive criteria for testing, came during a critical time as officials hoped to identify and contain the disease before a community spread.

Turnaround time for getting results of tests was also sluggish because without testing kits, the state had to send specimens to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which took more than a week.

Earlier this week the state opened testing facilities in Madison and Milwaukee, which can provide results in one or two days, according to Allen Bateman, assistant director of communicable diseases at the state Laboratory of Hygiene.

“But if the volume of testing really skyrockets, the time to results may be delayed a bit,” he said in an email.

The federal government also expanded access to testing Wednesday by giving doctors more authority in deciding which patients get tested. 

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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