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Gov. DeWine: Ohio Preparing For 'Emerging Health Threat' Posed By COVID-19

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton and Gov. Mike DeWine outline the state's plan to combat a potential coronavirus outbreak at a press conference at MetroHealth Medical Center Thursday. [Anna Huntsman / ideastream]
Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton and Gov. Mike DeWine outline the state's plan to combat a potential coronavirus outbreak at a press conference at MetroHealth Medical Center Thursday.

Updated: 8:07 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020

State and local health experts are advising caution rather than panic as the novel coronavirus spreads beyond China.

While there are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the state, it’s “an emerging health threat," Gov. Mike DeWine said at a press conference at MetroHealth Medical Center Thursday.

State agencies including the Ohio Department of Transportation will post information at rest stops about preventing the coronavirus, and the Ohio Department of Aging will help to identify citizens most vulnerable to getting infected.

DeWine also said universities are encouraged to prohibit foreign travel to countries under advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I’m also asking our colleges and universities to take appropriate action to accommodate students who are studying abroad and may need to come back to the United States in mid-semester or mid-quarter,” he said. “Help them make that transition.”

The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) said there are 212 people self-quarantined in Ohio and seven people who have been tested for the disease, all of which came back negative.

ODH Director Dr. Amy Acton said the disease is similar to the flu and very contagious. She recommended combating the disease by washing hands for 20 seconds and disinfecting surfaces.

“Infectious diseases are something we know, and even when there’s a new infectious disease, they are predictably unpredictable,” she said. “While we might not know exactly where it might spread first, or where the one case in Ohio might occur, we really know what to do about it when it happens.”

She also said it does not appear to be as dangerous as past disease outbreaks, like Ebola or SARS.

“The thing that [this outbreak] most feels like, to most of my colleagues as well, is H1N1, which means we’re kind of in for the long haul,” she said.

The first case of community-spread COVID-19 was confirmed in California this week.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has not dubbed the novel coronavirus a pandemic. But the spread of the virus has already hit the level of a pandemic even without that label, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Senior Scholar Dr. Amesh Adalja said Thursday on ideastream’s The Sound of Ideas.

“For all intents and purposes, it has been a pandemic for some time now,” Adalja told host Mike McIntyre. “We have efficient community spread of a respiratory virus in over two dozen countries with secondary spread.”

At the same time, only 60 cases have been confirmed in the United States, as of this writing. The CDC said this week the spread of the virus here is inevitable.

But with the proper plans in local hospitals and continued work toward a vaccine, the United States could avoid the level of disruption COVID-19 is causing in other parts of the world, Adalja said.

“There is no anti-viral, there is no vaccine, and that’s why the common cold transmits so efficiently,” Adalja said. “That’s why this virus will also transmit so efficiently, because it’s part of that bigger family of viruses.”

A majority of coronavirus cases are mild, Adalja said, and fatality rates are less than 1 percent outside the Chinese province where the virus originated. Health officials have been working to combat the virus’ spread for weeks, Adalja said.

Preparations have also been in the works locally and across the state, Cuyahoga County Board of Health Commissioner Terry Allan said on The Sound of Ideas. And some local hospitals are outfitted with facilities capable of providing the care needed for COVID-19 because of previous work with the Ebola virus and H1N1.

“We have plenty of capacity and experience with this,” Allan said. “We’ve been actively planning, there are guidelines, certainly, from the CDC describing the lessons learned from H1N1, sort of a moderate pandemic.”

There are preparations people can do on their own to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Allan said, including everyday practices like washing hands for 20 seconds and wiping down counters with cleaners that kill cold and flu germs.

The virus has a transmission area of about six feet, Allan said, meaning that if it does become more common, additional steps to reduce contact could be helpful. Video conferences and similar methods could be effective in place of in-person contact at either work or school to prevent spread.

“It can be disruptive, but we make those decisions based on how quick an outbreak is moving, the severity of it, and we look at transmissibility locally,” Allan said.

The larger concern for Northeast Ohio should be the flu, he said.

“In the last three weeks, we’ve seen 10 flu-related deaths, 612 flu-related hospitalizations, and almost 1,500 emergency department visits,” Allan said.

ODH will provide any updates on coronavirus cases in the state at coronavirus.ohio.gov.