Local health districts ‘planning for the worst’ but confident in coronavirus outbreak plans

SPOKANE, Wash. — As concerns mount nationwide over the spread of novel coronavirus, local health districts say they’re preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.

Program managers at the Panhandle and Spokane Regional Health Districts told 4 News Now they already have infectious disease plans in place, which they’ve previously used during the swine flu and ebola outbreaks.

“The plans that we’ve written, the plans that we’ve exercised, the plans that we’ve reviewed, are ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said Panhandle Health District public health preparedness manager Nick Mechikoff. “We work together as a group to make sure that the public is prepared during any kind of disaster. This one just happens to be a public health issue — I’m not going to call it a disaster yet because we’re not there.”

Both Mechikoff and Susan Sjoberg, who serves as the program manager for disease prevention and response at the Spokane Regional Health District, believe the rapidly-changing information surrounding COVID-19 isn’t helping matters when it comes to public concern.

“I think what is difficult is not having answers to some of the basic questions for all of us. As a citizen of the community as well as a public health person,” Sjoberg said. “It’s the uncertainty that is uncomfortable for all of us.”

Sjoberg said her team is sticking to what they know by looking to their existing plan.

“We’re planning for worst case scenario, hoping we don’t get there,” she said.

Mechikoff said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a set of guidelines for hospitals to use to determine if they should test a patient for COVID-19. Right now, Mechikoff said the focus is on those who have recently traveled to outbreak areas — even though the first case of coronavirus with an unknown origin has recently been reported in California. He said there is a chance that patient may have somehow come into contact with someone who had previously traveled to an outbreak area.

“That volume of testing just on symptoms without the travel would be enormous — I mean, our community alone could overwhelm the CDC,” Sjoberg added.

She said since news of the spread is falling in the middle of flu season, people with flu-like symptoms are even more paranoid they’ve contracted the virus, especially since they present similar symptoms.

“If they’re not feeling well, they may just have the standard flu,” Mechikoff added. “It’s important to remember that there are a lot of other things that make us sick, there are a lot of bugs out there.”

According to Mechikoff, the CDC and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare will notify the Panhandle Health District if there is someone coming back to the Inland Northwest from an outbreak area. The health district will then monitor that person’s symptoms over the phone.

“We call them once a day and just say, ‘how ya doing? Are you taking your temperature? What is your temperature?’ … So we have daily contact with the people,” he said.

If a person does become symptomatic, Mechikoff said they would need to call an epidemiologist with the district, who would then notify the hospital about a potential case.

“If they feel that they cannot get to the hospital safely themselves because they’re not feeling well, we have a system to notify emergency medical services,” he said. “Don’t walk into an emergency department. Call ahead. Let them know that you’re coming. Certainly let them know if you’ve had any recent travel outside of the United States.”

Sjoberg said potential cases will be taken to an isolation room. A spokesperson with Kootenai Health told 4 News Now the hospital has an infectious disease plan, with precautions in place to protect the doctors and nurses caring for patients, as well as other patients in the hospital. That spokesperson said the hospital has not seen any confirmed or potential cases and does not have any patients who meet the CDC guidelines for testing.

Sjoberg is optimistic it won’t get to that point in the Inland Northwest.

“I think the primary message is really a message of ‘don’t panic,'” Sjoberg said.