Credit: Photo by Briana Adhikusuma

With the international spread of the coronavirus and cases popping up across the country, local governments have been rushing to put together plans in case of outbreaks. The virus hasn’t reached Montgomery County, but local health officials are preparing for the possibility.

The coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, is a respiratory virus first detected in Wuhan, China. In the United States alone, there have been nine deaths from the virus as of Tuesday evening, all in Washington state.

In Maryland, 10 people have tested negative and 11 other tests were pending as of Wednesday morning, according to the state Department of Health.

Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County’s health officer and chief of Public Health Services, said the majority of people in the community are at low risk of contracting the virus. For those who catch it, there’s a low risk of having a severe outcome, he said.

“Just because it’s new, does not mean it’s not something we’re not entirely familiar with in terms of the family of other viruses within the coronavirus family,” he said.

Gayles and Earl Stoddard, the county’s director of the Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, presented information on the virus and the county’s preparation efforts during a County Council session on Tuesday afternoon. Discussion of the virus lasted for nearly two-and-a-half hours.

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Clinical symptoms of the coronavirus usually include a fever, cough and shortness of breath. But the coronavirus can range from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. The people most at risk of having the worst symptoms are the elderly or those with health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or high blood pressure.

The County’s DHHS, Emergency Management Group, and Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security are working together on potential response plans, which cover public alerts, staffing support and enforcement of public health orders. The health department has already met with managers and supervisors of count departments to relay information and guidance on appropriate responses.

Health officials want people to wash their hands.

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Many people can touch the same objects throughout the day, such as doorknobs and money.

“This is one of the big reasons why we have been encouraging — from day one and will continue to encourage until the end of the world — effective hand washing as a preeminent way to prevent disease spread,” Gayles said.

The virus can spread by air and close personal contact, as well as people touching their face after touching public surfaces and, in rare cases, feces.

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County health officials have had extensive communication and meetings to discuss preparedness with the Maryland Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. There have been conversations with hospitals and transportation agencies to address concerns.

Stoddard said the county has been organizing communication channels and taking note of how much personal protective equipment is on hand.

Staffs are working on reaching the county’s homeless to provide resources on prevention.

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Several council members asked how residents with no insurance can be tested.

Gayles said residents are encouraged to come to the health department and the staff would “figure that out.”

“What we want people to understand is do not let that be a deterrent. … Delaying the tests can one, have negative impacts on your health status. But also potentially increase the risk of exposing others,” he said.

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Decisions on whether to close schools or other facilities would be made on a case-by-case basis.

“There is no set threshold at this time to when we would make that decision,” Gayles said. “But those decisions would be influenced by clinical information, the epidemiology, the number of cases confirmed and suspicious, and also if there’s any particular evidence of an outbreak in a particular location that might warrant closure at that time.”

The coronavirus will cause symptoms to appear over a 14-day incubation period, which means seemingly healthy people could spread the virus without knowing they have it. But residents are more likely to catch the flu than the virus.

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The death rate for coronavirus for people with no other health problems is 0.9%. For those with existing health conditions or compromised health, rates can rise to 6% or higher, Gayles said.

The virus is currently widespread in China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea.

Other ways residents can help prevent potentially catching the virus include:

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  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • Staying at home when sick and wearing a face mask with symptoms of the virus
  • Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces

Gayles said stocking up on pain relievers, fever reducers, extended supplies of prescription medications and hand sanitizer could help sick residents avoid going out and potentially spreading the virus.

If residents show symptoms, Gayles recommended calling ahead to primary care doctors, who can do screenings, or to the health department.

More information on the virus and preparation can be received by signing up for county alerts and calling the county’s Disease Control Unit at 240-777-1755 or the Maryland Department of Health at 410-767-6700 or 410-795-7365 (after office hours).

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Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com