It’s a scary word, and for good reason. It means a new disease has circled the globe, infecting people on multiple continents all at the same time.
The world has already seen the devastation an influenza pandemic can cause. In 1918, the Spanish Flu sickened 500 million people around the globe, resulting in anywhere from 50 to 100 million deaths.
Now a new strain of the coronavirus evolving from China has sickened 34,886 people, resulting in 724 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Because the virus is now in the United States, the goal is to catch it early and slow down its entrance into the country.
Utah has no confirmed cases of the deadly virus to date, but the local health establishment is preparing for the worst if it does arrive.
“So far we have no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Utah,” said Utah Department of Health epidemiologist, Keegan McCaffrey. “We are working very closely with the CDC and health care providers and health departments across the state to assess and monitor people who may have been exposed, but I want to stress that we have not seen any cases so far.”
But things can change quickly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are currently 12 people in the United States who have tested positive for coronavirus, also known as 2019-nCoV, and tests on 100 more U.S. citizens are still pending. While that’s a very small number, the fact that the virus has made it to the United States concerns some.
“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said in a recent New York Times interview.
On Friday, Feb. 7, the CDC began shipping test kits for the coronavirus to state and local health departments across the nation. The goal is to diagnose the disease as quickly as possible.
“The potential public health threat posed by 2019-nCoV virus is high, both globally and to the U.S, as this virus has caused illness resulting in death, and sustained person-to-person spread in China is concerning,” said Weber-Morgan Health Department communicable disease and epidemiology supervisor, Amy Carter. “It’s unclear how the situation will unfold, but risk is dependent on exposure.”
Carter said at this time, some people will have an increased risk of infection, for example health care workers caring for 2019-nCoV patients and other close contacts of patients. For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk from this novel coronavirus is considered low at this time.
The threat of a pandemic is always there and some health experts in a new Netflix documentary entitled “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak,” are saying it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the next one will occur.
The documentary is a six-part series that deals with how well prepared the world is to deal with a pandemic.
In the documentary, Dr. Dennis Carroll, Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Emerging Threats Unit, said if a similar virus to the Spanish Flu in 1918 emerged today, the result would be hundreds of millions of deaths.
“It’s a guarantee that another version of that killer flu will reappear. We don’t know when. But we should always presume it can be soon,” Carroll said.
So is the world prepared? What about Utah? How prepared is the state to handle such an event?
“We do have a pandemic plan that can be used for any number of pandemic threats,” said McCaffrey. “We have a surveillance system in place and have been working with health care providers to make sure they are ready to accept sick patients without putting themselves at risk.”
The state also has tools in place to get enough medical supplies to treat people and keep the majority of the population as healthy as possible.
Weber State University also has a plan in place in case of a pandemic.
Dane LeBlanc, director of public safety, said Code Purple is an emergency notification system that allows the university the ability to communicate health and safety emergency information quickly to faculty, staff and students via text, voice and email messaging.
“The health and safety of the campus community is our top priority. In an effort to ensure Weber State University can continue to fulfill its mission to the best of our ability, continuity of operations plans have been written and can be put into action during emergency situations,” he said. “We employed elements of the plan in 2009 when we worked with health officials to offer mass H1N1 flu shots in the Dee Events Center.”
Symptoms of the coronavirus are similar to a variety of other illnesses and can include fever, cough, runny nose, shortness of breath and headache. Symptoms generally appear anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure. The best way to avoid getting sick is to avoid non-essential travel to China, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, washing hands with warm soapy water and avoiding contact with sick people.
But while coronavirus is making headlines right now, health officials are stressing the importance of getting an influenza vaccine as the state is seeing very high activity of the virus right now.
In Utah, 535 hospitalizations and two pediatric deaths have been confirmed, said McCaffrey, adding that Influenza type A’s subtype, H1N1, has been especially hard on the youth this year. The CDC has reported 22 million Americans with influenza this season, with 210,000 hospitalizations and approximately 12,000 deaths.
“The best way to prevent influenza is by getting a flu vaccine each year,” Carter said. “The influenza vaccine may not prevent a person completely from getting influenza, but it can provide significant protection against severe illness, complications, hospitalizations and/or deaths.”
Linda LeCain, a registered nurse at Ogden Regional Medical Center, said another step the public can take to prevent illness as much as possible is to wash their hands.
“Everything carries germs,” she said. “And when out in the public, remember someone else has touched what you are touching. Also, stay home if you are sick and if that’s not a possibility, cover your coughs and sneezes. Don’t spray germs over anyone near you and remember, those droplets from a sneeze or cough can travel up to six feet.”
In addition, LeBlanc said if you are sick, please stay home until you haven’t had a fever for 24 hours.
“Symptoms may last for a week or more and you are contagious while you have these symptoms,” he said. “You should stay home and avoid contact with others except to seek medical care.”