‘Watchful waiting’: County officials, school district preparing for local coronavirus cases

‘Watchful waiting’: County officials, school district preparing for local coronavirus cases

County Council will receive briefing on Tuesday

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via CDC

As fear about a potential national coronavirus outbreak mounts, the Montgomery County school district and local officials are working to create a “comprehensive response plan.”

Coronavirus, first identified in Wuhan, China, has sickened 83,000 people and killed more than 2,800 worldwide — the majority in China — since December, prompting United States health officials to prepare local response plans.

There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Maryland. There have been five patients tested for the disease; two of the tests were negative and the results of the other three tests have not been returned as of Friday, according to the state Department of Health.

Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the state does not release where the patients are from.

Symptoms include fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. The organization recommends traditional strategies to prevent the spread like washing your hands, covering coughs and staying home if you’re sick.

This week, Montgomery County Public Schools sent a message to the community saying it is working closely with county agencies to “monitor the situation and develop a coordinated and comprehensive public health plan to ensure we are prepared if cases arise in our community.”

That includes developing a plan for worst-case scenarios, spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said: What does the system do if schools, which serve more than 166,000 students, need to be shut down? How would teachers continue instruction? Is virtual schooling possible? What if public transit is unavailable?

There are no solid answers yet, Onijala said, but MCPS plans to release more information early next week.

“This doesn’t just come together quickly; the health component is just one aspect of what MCPS has to work through,” Onijala said. “We’re thinking about this as a team with all of our county partners and urgently working on creating that comprehensive plan that addresses all of these things.”

The school district is working with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services to determine how many local cases would trigger a shutdown of community events or public facilities, like schools.

As of Friday morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 15 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States.

During a news conference Friday morning, the World Health Organization increased its worldwide coronavirus risk assessment to “very high … in terms of spread and in terms of impact.”

On Thursday, U.S. health officials announced a California patient who was diagnosed with the coronavirus had not traveled anywhere known to have the virus and wasn’t exposed to anyone known to be infected. In response, the CDC issued new testing guidance to health care workers, urging patients with severe symptoms to be tested, even if no source of exposure had been identified.

The Montgomery County Council is scheduled to receive an update on the virus Tuesday afternoon from county health officials, including efforts to “closely monitor the health impacts of the coronavirus” and prevention methods.

Anderson said the county has a general “pandemic preparedness plan” that outlines talking points for county officials to use when developing response plans for potential virus outbreaks. The county has convened an “emergency management group” of members representing various county agencies that is discussing potential responses to a coronavirus outbreak.

“There are all kinds of conversations going on between various parties, but the key is to have this regular communication so if and when the situation changes, we can all be ready to respond,” Anderson said. “You could call it watchful waiting.”

The threat of a coronavirus outbreak has caused anxiety and unease across the country. On Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 3.8%.

Some universities have made students on study-abroad trips in China and other Asian countries return early. States across the country, including Maryland, have announced they will allocate additional money for emergency preparations. On Thursday, Gov. Larry Hogan said he will request an additional $10 million as the state “actively plans for the worst.”

Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services distributed kits to 50 ambulances, including masks, protective face shields and cleaning materials, spokesman Pete Piringer said. Units also stocked up on supplies to prepare in case there’s a future shortage.

But Anderson said local officials think the risk of exposure to the virus in Montgomery County remains low.

“We still think the risk right now is generally low for the public,” Anderson said, “but given the advice of the Centers for Disease Control, we are preparing for the situation that we would get local cases.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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