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As the first cases of the COVID-19 virus spread to Florida, hospitals in West Volusia are preparing for possible cases of the virus and urging residents to take precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
COVID-19, also known as “novel coronavirus,” “coronavirus disease 2019,” or, in common parlance, just “the coronavirus,” was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. As of March 3, there have been 92,240 cases of the virus across the globe, causing 3,132 deaths, according to official statistics.
Two cases of the virus in Florida were first confirmed March 1, in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, around the Tampa metropolitan area.
COVID-19 is the technical name for the disease caused by a particular coronavirus, which is called SARS-CoV-2, or “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.”
Officials at AdventHealth and Halifax Health, companies who together run three hospitals and dozens of other medical facilities in West Volusia, have been issuing advice on how people can stay safe and prevent the virus’s spread, while also trying to reassure an anxious populace that a case of the sniffles likely doesn’t mean one has the virus.
“AdventHealth has a robust infection-prevention program and policies that ensure patients, team members and the greater community are safeguarded, should we treat a patient with coronavirus,” said Dr. Vincent Hsu, infection-control officer for AdventHealth’s Central Florida Division.
Hsu said the risk of infection for people across Florida remains low.
“However, it’s important that we remain vigilant and take measures to minimize risk, such as routine hand-washing, and staying home if you are sick,” he said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order March 1 laying out the state’s response to the virus.
The order directs the Florida Department of Health to actively monitor “persons under investigation” for the virus for a minimum of 14 days, or until they test negative for the virus. That includes making sure the person is quarantined for the same time period.
AdventHealth spokeswoman Lindsay Cashio said as of 5 p.m. Monday, the organization hadn’t seen a confirmed coronavirus patient in Central Florida.
However, there is no commercially available test for the virus for use by hospitals and other facilities as of yet, she said. Testing for the virus has to be done through the Florida Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cashio said when a patient comes in who is suspected of possibly having the coronavirus, doctors might perform other tests to rule out other potential illnesses such as the flu or mononucleosis.
Coronaviruses are actually a whole class of viruses, which includes the pathogens that cause the common cold and similar respiratory infections. Most people are infected with such viruses at some point in their lives, with symptoms such as a headache, cough, sore throat, runny nose and a fever.
Most patients with respiratory symptoms do not have COVID-19, and likely have a more common pathogen, like the flu, health officials said.
Cashio said, among other preparations, the company has been educating its physicians and other clinicians on the latest guidelines from the CDC and the Health Department.
Patients are also being screened at care entry points at all facilities. AdventHealth is also having all patients answer a brief questionnaire about their recent travel history, and if they are experiencing any respiratory symptoms.
The hospital chain has also been in contact with its vendors to ensure it has an adequate supply of masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment.
The story is similar at Halifax Health’s facilities.
Emily Gibb, infection preventionist for Halifax Health, said the company has been preparing for COVID-19 since the start of the year.
“The hospital has actively monitored the situation,” she said. “Travel-screening forms have been revised and distributed to points of entry and our three separate [emergency room] locations.”
Halifax also participates in periodic calls with the CDC, and Gibb said meetings with emergency-room doctors have been taking place to lay out plans on how to deal with potential suspected cases of the virus.
Keeping the virus in perspective, Gibb said, until it’s clear that the virus is being spread from person to person in the U.S., the public should simply stick to their normal precautions for stopping the spread of germs.
“Until established person-to-person transmission is present in the United States, additional precautions and warnings for the general public will not change,” Gibb said. “Influenza is currently a bigger threat to our community, which has resulted in 105 pediatric deaths [nationwide] so far this flu season.”
“Wearing masks in public places is not recommended at this time, and the risk to the general public remains low,” Gibb added.
Volusia County’s public schools have also been staying in contact with officials about the virus.
“The district has a plan in place, if the county experiences any cases of the coronavirus,” said Frank FitzGerald, a district spokesman. “The district has been in contact with the Volusia County Health Department and Volusia County Emergency Management regarding the coronavirus.”
The district also recommends students, parents and staff take normal precautions to prevent the spread of disease.
“As with any contagious illness, parents, students and staff are asked to stay home from work or school to avoid spreading infections, including influenza, to others in the community,” FitzGerald said. “… People experiencing cough, fever and fatigue, possibly along with diarrhea and vomiting, should contact their physician.”
People should also avoid close contact with people who are coughing or who otherwise appear ill, avoid touching their own eyes, noses and mouths, and wash their hands frequently.