Worried about COVID-19? Here's what local health experts are advising.

Worried about COVID-19? Here's what local health experts are advising.

The Quad-Cities have no known cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

But an outbreak is possible, and local health officials ask residents and businesses to prepare.

At a press conference Monday, leaders from the Rock Island County and Scott County health departments, Genesis Health, UnityPoint-Trinity and other health care groups called the epidemic “incredibly serious.” 

They urged individuals to practice “good manners” and “common sense”: cover coughs and sneezes, clean routinely and stay in when sick.

Data from around 50,000 cases in China, where the novel coronavirus disease first appeared late last year, indicate that diagnoses are highest among people in their 50s and 60s. Mortality is highest among people in their 70s and 80s. That pattern matches diagnoses with the flu, which kills tens of thousands of Americans every year.

The overall mortality rate for COVID-19 is estimated between 2% and 3%, though that figure might be misleadingly high due to systemic under-reporting.

The good news: “80% of cases are mild,” said Louis Katz, a doctor and expert in infectious disease. “Essentially, they look like they’ve got a cold.”

Only around 5% of cases are critical, Katz added.

But the relatively high rate of mild cases is also bad news. The virus is likely to be spread by asymptomatic people who are unlikely to self-isolate, let alone know they are infected.

“Worst case is that a lot of people have no symptoms and may be able to transmit the virus. If that’s the case, we’re in for a bad epidemic," said Katz, who’s also chief medical officer at Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center.  “Even a mortality of 1-2% is going to be a lot of premature death." 

The virus is believed to be spread between people in close contact — generally defined as within 6 feet — through respiratory droplets formed when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The disease can also spread when someone touches an infected surface or object and then touches their mouth, nose or eyes.

Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Officials said locals who show symptoms and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19, or who have recently traveled to an area with an outbreak, can get tested at their local health care provider.

Health care providers urged residents to call ahead so that medical facilities can prepare to handle a possible COVID-19 patient properly to minimize the risk of transmission.

Genesis Health and UnityPoint-Trinity have both issued temporary visitor restrictions, effective immediately. Patients are limited to two adult visitors, age 18 or older, at any one time. Visitors under 18 may only visit if they are an immediate family and are considered to be “essential for the patient’s well-being.” Any visitor who is sick, including those with coughs or runny noses, are asked to postpone their visits.

“Our facilities are used to caring for people with communicable diseases,” said Angel Mueller, director of quality at UnityPoint-Trinity. “It’s really the same practices that we have in place for influenza and other infections that we’ve employed for COVID-19 right now.”

There are seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Illinois, and no deaths. Iowa’s first cases were identified Sunday after three Johnson County residents tested positive upon returning from an Egyptian cruise last week.

Nationwide, several universities are canceling classes, and some schools have closed temporarily. Although such measures are premature in the Quad-Cities area, early or complete closures might become necessary later.

Strategies to “get people apart” are important “not so much to reduce the ultimate number of people who get infected, but to lower the peak and extend the epidemic so that our health care and social services can be maintained without crashing,” Katz said.

Much remains unknown about COVID-19 and its transmission, including how exactly the virus—which is believed to be zoonotic, or transmissible from animals to humans—first formed.

“There’s a sense that it’s not infecting kids,” Katz said. “Kids are being infected, but they don’t get sick.”

Hand sanitizers are effective, though old-fashioned hand-washing with soap and water for 20 seconds is ideal. Experts also advise against travel to countries with a Level 3 Travel Health Notice, where the outbreak is widespread and ongoing, including China, Iran, Italy and South Korea.

Katz said he would not necessarily advise against travel to Chicago, though he would advise against most travel to Seattle, where the outbreak is worse.

The average member of the public does not need to buy and wear a mask, local experts advised. Mask shortages hamper the essential work of medical professionals, who most need protective equipment. Masks, which should be worn to cover both the nose and the mouth, are most effective when worn by individuals who are known to be infected so as to minimize risk of transmission.

“There’s no absolutely no evidence that a well person is significantly protected by wearing a mask,” Katz said. “The thing that it does: It diverts masks that are going to be needed in acute care if the epidemic gets bad. You don’t see me wearing a mask.”

Experts have also recommended employers reconsider their policies on sick leave and working from home. “If someone comes in sniffling and coughing, they need to be sent home,” Katz said.

“In the general public, it’s really about common sense,” Katz added. “Don’t go out when you’re sick, cover your cough, wash your hands, social distancing measures.

“We need to be prepared for sustained community transmission.”

Graham Ambrose is the Iowa politics reporter for the Quad-City Times. 

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