Facing the unknown: Local medical experts address public’s questions on coronavirus outbreak (with video)
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A panel of local medical experts convened at Steamboat Springs City Hall on Friday to address some of the public’s most pressing questions and concerns surrounding the global outbreak of a novel coronavirus.
Panelists included Routt County Public Health Director Kari Ladrow, Routt County Public Health Officer Dr. Brian Harrington, Dr. Laura Sehnert with UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center and Interim Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli, all seated more than 6 feet apart to mitigate any potential spread of infection.
The public submitted their questions about the disease, known as COVID-19, through the Steamboat Pilot & Today and through city officials. Below is a list of those questions and the panelists’ answers.
Who should get tested for COVID-19?
One of the major challenges to combatting the coronavirus pandemic has been a lack of testing capabilities, according to Dr. Harrington.
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To perform a diagnostic test for COVID-19, health workers must collect a special nasal swab and send the sample to a lab. The flood of samples from across the country has swamped the labs, Harrington said, creating backlog in the system. Recently, hospitals, including UCHealth, also have run low on the swabs, which has exacerbated the testing limitations.
“Those issues are outside of our local control,” he explained.
For these reasons, hospitals are prioritizing who gets tested. Hospital patients with a respiratory illness are first on the list, followed by health care workers. Higher-risk patients who are more likely to have the virus also are high on the list, but even some of them are not being tested, Harrington said.
While officials want to test more people, the limitations do not make it possible.
Ladrow with Routt County Public Health added that local health care centers and organizations are collaborating to obtain more resources.
How contagious is COVID-19?
Because the current pandemic originated from a new strain of coronavirus, many unknowns remain about COVID-19, according to Harrington. Based on available data, it appears that the virus is about twice as contagious as the flu. Experts think the virus mainly spreads from person-to-person contact.
Mortality rates also appear to be higher for COVID-19, ranging from 1-3%. The disease is much more serious for older people and those with underlying health conditions, killing 10-27% of patients 85 and over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No fatalities have been reported among people 19 and younger.
What can people do to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Because no vaccine has been developed to prevent infection, the best thing people can do is to avoid being exposed to the virus, according to Ladrow. People should follow health guidelines from the state and the CDC, such as washing hands for 20 seconds and self-isolating.
Harrington also advises against traveling to higher-risk areas where the virus is more prevalent. People who believe they have been exposed to COVID-19 should avoid contact with others for at least 14 days, he added.
Why are public health officials not releasing the exact locations of where infected people traveled?
After local officials confirmed that seven out-of-state tourists who later tested positive for COVID-19 came to Routt County, many in the community wanted to know which areas and businesses the people visited. This arose from a concern that the places and people with whom they came into contact could have contracted and spread the virus.
But as Harrington explained, health officials determined it is unlikely that releasing those locations would actually help. Medical experts believe the virus cannot survive on a surface for more than three days. Health officials did not get information about the places where the seven visitors traveled in Routt County until after the three-day window had passed.
“In the cases that we had, there was no benefit in naming or locking down those places,” Harrington said.
In the instances where the virus has spread, Harrington said it tends to be in situations where an infected person is in close quarters with others for an extended period of time. This appears to have been the case in El Paso County, where multiple people fell sick and two people died after attending the same bridge tournament earlier in the month.
To mitigate any future spread of the virus, businesses would be forced to close for three days and meticulously cleaned before re-opening if an employee shows any symptoms of COVID-19, Harrington said.
What does ‘community spread’ mean?
When the seven out-of-state visitors tested positive for COVID-19 following their return to their native Australia, officials could not determine where exactly they contracted the virus.
Because of that unknown, Routt County, where they visited during their trip, was assumed to be a potential area of transmission. This is what health officials refer to as evidence of community spread, Dr. Sehnert with UCHealth explained. It means that people have been infected with the virus in a given area, including some patients who do not know how, when or where they got the virus.
As Harrington added, most people who have contracted COVID-19 show symptoms within five days, but some are not symptomatic until two weeks after infection. This makes it difficult to determine where a person first got the virus.
Regardless of where transmission occurred, the protocol is the same, Harrington said: quarantine the infected and track the people with whom they came into contact.
How are first responders protecting themselves?
First responders, such as firefighters and paramedics, continue to answer calls for service amid the pandemic. This presents an added fear that they could enter situations that expose them to COVID-19. If first responders get sick, it would mean not only potentially spreading the virus, but preventing them from performing their vital work.
To mitigate that threat, Interim Fire Chief Chuck Cerasoli said Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue is following the health recommendations from the CDC. These include precautionary measures such as using personal protective equipment, asking about patients’ health prior to responding to calls and limiting physical contact. Cerasoli described a method he called “driveway triage,” in which his firefighters and medics assess patients’ injuries and the health of any other people involved from a safe distance before making contact.
Despite these added precautions, first responders continue to respond to all emergency calls, Cerasoli emphasized.
Does the hospital have the capacity to deal with a surge of patients?
Communities across the world have taken drastic measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, shutting down almost every form of public gathering, from schools to restaurants to church services. Among the primary reasons for these limitations is the fact that hospitals do not have the resources to treat the influx of patients who could become infected if such activities continue unabated.
Locally, the UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center has just 39 beds, according to Sehnert. For this reason, the hospital is limiting visitors and only accepting patients with urgent needs. The public should prioritize using other health resources, Sehnert said, such as self-quarantining or consulting their primary care physician. Those without a primary care physician can schedule a virtual urgent care appointment online. Visit https://www.uchealth.org/services/virtual-visit.
Routt County also has established a call center specifically for the COVID-19 outbreak to answer people’s questions and connect them with resources, a service that is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the week. Call 970-871-8444.
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