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Local officials prepare for threat of coronavirus

| March 9, 2020 8:38 AM

Despite growing anxiety surrounding the coronavirus nationally, local health officials said the best steps residents could take likely are the most well known.

Avoid close contact with sick people, refrain from touching your face with unwashed hands and wash your hands often, said Jennifer McCully, public health manager for Lincoln County. She also recommended those feeling ill stay home and take the usual precautions.

“People need to know that right now there are no cases in the community or the state and we’re actively analyzing the situation,” McCully said.

Fear of the virus’ spread caused major market fluctuations on Wall Street in recent weeks and sent sales of face masks and hand sanitizer skyrocketing across the country. Since the outbreak began in China, health officials have confirmed cases in about 70 countries and in 17 U.S. states.

Concern also has led to forced quarantines, disrupted international travel and closed schools, universities and museums across the globe. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization announced that the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, killed about 3.4 percent of those infected.

But in Lincoln County, McCully has yet to field a phone call from a resident regarding the illness. Still, health officials are on alert, she said.

“It is concerning with Washington being so close,” McCully said.

Officials in that state announced its ninth coronavirus-related death March 3. There are 41 confirmed cases in Washington state as of press time.

At Cabinet Peaks Medical Center, officials sought to remind residents that most coronavirus cases could be treated at home.

“If your symptoms become severe and you are having difficulty breathing or are unable to manage your fever, that is when you should seek medical attention,” said Kate Stephens, spokesperson for the medical center. “It is also important to note that there is no treatment for COVID-19, so your doctor will not prescribe any medicine to treat the actual virus.”

Stephens also asked that patients displaying symptoms of coronavirus — unless severe — contact health officials rather than go to the emergency department for treatment.

“If you feel you have acquired COVID-19, it is important for you to stay home and contact the health department directly,” she said. “Our public health officials will come to you for screening in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus.”

McCully said her department is coordinating with state officials. On March 3, Gov. Steve Bullock activated what officials call the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force as part of an effort to prepare for the virus’ possible spread here.

Adjutant General Matthew Quinn will lead the task force, which will coordinate a multi-agency public health response to an outbreak and facilitate communication between local, state and federal levels of government, according to a press release.

“Montana has conducted similar public health responses in the past — we are prepared and will continue to be throughout,” Bullock said in a statement.

The state also recently received kits from the Centers for Disease Control allowing health officials here to test for coronavirus, authorities said. Previously, samples were sent to the Atlanta-based CDC for testing.

“This will allow us to better support testing efforts for medical providers in the state should the need arise,” said Sheila Hogan, Department of Public Health and Human Services director.

About 25 people in Montana are being monitored for symptoms after returning from mainland China, officials said. Symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

At this point, were an individual to report symptoms matching the coronavirus, local officials would look at the person’s travel history, to include both China and now Washington state, McCully said.

For those unaffected by the illness, McCully recommended they focus on staying healthy. According to the Washington Post, the elderly and individuals with an underlying health problem are most at risk.

Although sales in face masks have spiked, McCully said her staff is not recommending people wear them. In fact, national health officials have urged consumers to stop buying the product.

“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” wrote staff members of the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General on the social media platform Twitter late last month. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

As for stocking up on emergency supplies, McCully said residents hopefully already have a stash of food and water in case of a natural disaster — if nothing else.

“That should always be on folks’ minds,” she said. “Always be prepared for an emergency.”

That includes potentially bad flood and wildfire seasons, she said.

And the precautions recommended for warding off coronavirus also aid in preventing the spread of the flu. As of March 1, local health officials have seen 221 cases of influenza reported with seven hospitalizations.

That figure is up from 99 cases and one hospitalization at this time last year, McCully said. During the 2017-18 flu season, the county saw 167 cases with 13 hospitalizations, she said.

While coronavirus has accounted for 11 deaths and about 150 cases in the U.S., influenza has sickened as many as 45 million Americans between Oct. 1 and Feb. 22, according to the CDC. The federal agency estimates the flu has contributed to the deaths of between 18,000 and 46,000 people during that same period.

“The flu is still [increasing],” McCully said. “We have had quite a few cases and hospitalizations. It’s definitely a more intense flu season than last year.”