County health commish says: Be prepared for coronavirus

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Elizabeth Whalen, health commissioner for Albany County, tells the crowd at a press conference on Wednesday morning that data on the novel coronavirus is constantly changing.

ALBANY COUNTY — County health departments in New York State are in the front lines of dealing with the novel coronavirus, Albany County’s health commissioner told a group of first responders, municipal leaders, and the press on Wednesday morning.

“We don’t want people to panic,” said the county executive, Daniel McCoy, who hosted the conference. He noted there was a lot of “misinformation” around the virus that first was noted in Wuhan, China in December and has since spread around the world.

“We have to put out the right information,” said McCoy.

Albany County’s health department has checked 37 individuals in 27 households, Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said; they are people who traveled to Level 3 countries, which include China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. One of those people was tested for the virus, and the test came back negative, she said. A second test is pending.

Whalen stressed that the data on the transmission of the virus is constantly changing. When she prepared her remarks on Tuesday, she said, New York State had three confirmed cases but that doubled to six by Wednesday morning.

Wednesday afternoon, McCoy’s office put out a release saying the county health department had been “notified of a concern related to Coronavirus at the Albany County Courthouse.” The department concluded “there is no current increased risk for individuals present in this building today,” the release said, and no testing was recommended.

Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, is deadlier than seasonal flu but doesn’t transmit as easily, according to the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as reported by The New York Times. Globally, he said, about 3.4 percent of reported Covid-19 cases have died while seasonal flu generally kills fewer than 1 percent of those infected.

Both the state and federal government are passing measures to deal with the threat of the virus. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that he will amend his paid sick leave budget proposal to specifically protect people who stay home from work because they are being isolated or quarantined as a result of novel coronavirus.

The day before, on Monday, Cuomo announced a new directive requiring New York insurers to waive cost-sharing for coronavirus testing. Currently, all Covid-19 tests conducted by the state’s Wadsworth Lab in Albany are fully covered, the governor announced.

Testing at the state’s Wadsworth Lab was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration in late February. Formerly, tests had to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, D.C. where there was a backlog with the volume of requests, according to a release from the governor’s office.

The decision to allow New York State to do its own testing came after talks between Coumo and Vice President Michael Pence, who is overseeing  the federal response to the outbreak, the release said.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed an $8.3 billion supplemental package to fund a nationwide response to combat the novel coronavirus. More than $3 billion is for research and development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics; $2.2 billion is for public-health funding for prevention preparedness, and response; and nearly $1 billion is for procurement of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

“This is a virus not previously seen in humans,” Whalen said. “We are learning how it affects people, how it spreads.” It is predominantly a respiratory infection and spreads much in the same way that flu does — droplets containing the virus are spread by coughing and contamination of surfaces. 

People are most contagious, Whalen said, when they first develop a cough and fever.

In China, Whalen said, 80 percent of the infected people had somewhat mild symptoms of fever and a cough. Fifteen to 20 percent had more severe symptoms.

She outlined two phases of preparedness: containment and community mitigation.

For the first phase, the strategy is to keep cases out of Albany County, she said, by quarantining people who have returned from traveling to Level 3 countries.

The incubation period is from two days to two weeks so people are quarantined for two weeks. This means they are put in a controlled environment — often in their homes — before they develop symptoms, she said.

This is different than isolation, which is for people who have tested positive for the disease. This can be managed at home in many cases. Not everyone has to go to a hospital, said Whalen, noting local hospitals are busy with flu patients.

The second phase, community mitigation, involves three categories of non-pharmaceutical interventions.

The first is personal hygiene. People are advised to wash their hands frequently; wipe down surfaces, such as on phones and computers, that are used frequently; to cough into their elbows; and to stay home if they are sick.

Second, institutions in a community, such as schools and businesses, should make plans on how to deal with the virus if it spreads, Whalen said.

The Guilderland Central School District, for example, recently distributed a notice that the the district has regular daily cleaning protocols in place to minimize the spread of viruses. The district also provided a list of recommendations, including washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, covering sneezes and coughs with a tissue and then throwing the tissue away; disinfecting frequently touched objects; avoiding close contact with someone who is sick; and staying home when sick.

Third is dealing with environmental triggers, such as cleaning surfaces. Whalen, who frequently cited the CDC website, said it has a list of effective cleaning products.

If people are concerned that they may have contracted the virus, Whalen urged them to call the state’s novel coronavirus hotline at 1-888-364-3065.

Second, she said, they could contact their health-care provider or local health department. “We work with the hospitals and other care providers,” she said.

She stressed that hospitals are very busy dealing with influenza, and people who suspect they may have novel coronavirus should not go to the hospital

She also stressed that hand-washing is much more helpful than purchasing masks. She called masks for the general public “an inappropriate use of resources” as masks are needed in hospitals.

Whalen also said that people should think about how they would handle child care if schools or businesses were to be closed and who they might help their elderly neighbors.

“We are not too early to start planning … to be prepared if we need to be prepared,” said Whalen.

She concluded, “The risk to Albany County residents remains very low.”

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