Dallas County prepared for ifs, whens of coronavirus emergence

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday warned Americans to prepare for a coronavirus pandemic, and their warning is echoed by the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Dallas County Public Health Department.

The CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier said the “rapidly evolving and expanding” outbreak of the coronavirus, also called COVID-19, has seen “community spread” in multiple countries.

Dallas County Pubic Health Department Director Suzanne Hegarty said her office is monitoring the state of the virus worldwide but otherwise staying calm.

“What’s happening at the county level is pretty much not a whole lot,” Hegarty said. “We’re looking at our plans and encouraging people to think about the what-ifs but as of right now, it’s a really low-risk thing.”

She said Iowa has seen zero cases of COVID-19, “so the risk of infection for people is really low here.”

Dallas County Emergency Management Coordinator A. J. Seely said the county is prepared for any emergency, including a viral pandemic.

“From the beginning, we’re always in a state of monitoring, so we’re always looking at information that the federal government and state government put out related to the virus,” Seely said. “We’re making that interpretable at the local level and sharing information with our partners so that if something were to happen, everyone could respond in an appropriate manner.”

He said his department stockpiles an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, should they be we needed, “but a lot of it is information sharing at this point because we’re still relatively in the infancy of this in Iowa.”

Hegarty said Dallas County residents do not need to wear protective equipment now.

“That’s not a recommendation for the general public to need any kind of persona protective equipment,” she said. “The CDC has been very, very forthright about the fact that this is a really low risk, and they do not recommend that the general public wear masks or anything like that.”

As the virus has spread outside of China, the CDC and other federal agencies continue to take steps to slow the introduction of the virus into the United States to give officials time to prepare, she said. But as more countries report community spread of the disease, containment at U.S. borders becomes more difficult.

On Monday, the World Health Organization declined to declare the outbreak a pandemic although cases are emerging in Iran, Italy, South Korea and elsewhere. On Tuesday, the Spanish resort of Tenerife placed a hotel on lockdown after hundreds of guests were exposed to an Italian doctor who tested positive for the virus after staying there.

There have so far been 57 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among U.S. citizens. Of these, 40 cases were among passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, and three cases involved Americans “repatriated” from Wuhan by the U.S. State Department.

Seven people are currently being monitored in quarantine in Iowa by the IDPH. None have shown symptoms.

Hegarty said that as with any virus, including the commoner cold viruses, a few simple precautions are always effective.

“The best way to combat any virus,” she said, “and we push it for everything, is to wash your hands, cover your cough and if you’re sick, please stay home.”

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