JEFFERSONVILLE — Clark County health officials met with more than 40 community partners Wednesday to discuss preparations for the potential spread to Southern Indiana of COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Although there had been no confirmed cases of the disease as of the meeting, Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel addressed the group with what he knew, and urged those representing schools, first responders, businesses and the general public to begin preparing for multiple scenarios.
“We probably very likely will get cases in this area when it’s all said and done,” Yazel said. “To what extent, we don’t know.”
Yazel said he called the meeting because he’d fielded dozens of calls over the past week from concerned Clark County residents, and he wanted to put the correct information out — to help them prepare, but not panic.
“It’s a fine line between mixing preparedness and stirring up community anxiety,” he said. “We want everybody to be prepared, but we don’t want everybody paying $200 for a mask on Amazon, things like that.
“Education is key on this.”
Symptoms of the disease include fever, coughing and shortness of breath, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. The incubation period is two to 14 days, and symptoms may be mild or in rarer cases progress to fatality.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the World Health Organization (WHO) was reporting more than 94,000 cases worldwide, up 3,000 from the night before. More than 80,000 of these are from China, Yazel reported early in the day. The CDC reported 80 cases in 13 U.S. states as of Wednesday; WHO reports show 11 deaths in the U.S.
Yazel cautioned that the situation is unfolding quickly, citing the CDC and the Indiana State Department of Health as resources to monitor updates.
He urged anyone wanting to stay up-to-date on essential news affecting Clark County to sign up for text alerts by texting “healthinfo” to 888777.
The health officer said key steps to avoiding the flu can be very beneficial here — washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough, staying home if you’re sick, and not touching your face.
He also said that hoarding supplies puts other community members who may need them more at risk.
Yazel added that the current 1-2 fatality rate being reported internationally only relates to people who have tested positive for the virus. But since it may be mild in many cases and not tested, he believes the margins are actually wider, the death rate lower. He said 90-95 percent of people who do get tested will likely be cleared to go home, at which point they would be asked to self-quarantine, to help keep from spreading to other more vulnerable populations.
“Quarantine sounds really scary...it’s more just stay home and stay away from everybody else,” he said. “Limit your public exposure.” Those who have self-quarantined in other areas have also been asked to provide updates to their condition, such as their temperature, to health officials.
“We’re entertaining that because we want to plan for every eventuality, but that’s nothing that’s on our immediate radar,” he said.
Yazel also broke the situation down into four simplified potential phases — the first being initial preparedness. This is where things are now, he said; there aren’t cases here but likely coming, national health officials have reported.
Phase two would be what he calls “the sporadic phase,” which would be when the first cases start popping up in the area. The epidemic phase, which he said may or may not be seen in Clark County, would involve much more consistent instances of cases. Phase four, the “worst-case scenario,” would involve the disease being more ubiquitous throughout the county, with a higher mortality rate of 5 to 10 percent.
He wants each facility to prepare for all four potential phases, but hopes things don’t go that far.
For places like schools, hospitals and businesses, Yazel said leaders should be ready to act, such as having a place to isolate a student or employee who exhibits symptoms of the illness, while next steps are taken. Businesses also should prepare for up to a potential 35 percent decrease in workforce if people are asked to self-quarantine.
He said in the case of children, who have so far not appeared to be contracting the disease as easily as older adults, it’s still important to screen them if their parents or caretakers are known to have the coronavirus.
He urged employers to relax sick time protocols, especially businesses which require a “doctor’s note” to be granted the time off without penalty. Healthcare workers and other essential emergency responders should take care to keep from being infected as they come into more frequent contact with infected residents.
This could be wearing personal protective gear, and in the case of outpatient facilities, initially screening patients from at least six feet away, if possible, “because we’re all going to get quarantined if we don’t do this the right way,” he said.
The meeting was just a starting point, to get representatives in the room to begin conversations on preparedness. But Yazel said people at each facility need to review their own procedures and circumstances to see what fits them best.
“The one thing, they’re going to have to do their legwork as well,” he said. “We can give them the basic framework for what things need to be part of their plan, but every place is different and has different exposure risks and physical setups.”