Monroe County is taking necessary steps to prepare for the coronavirus, but the county’s top health official said there is no reason for dramatic lifestyle changes.
There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in New York State and just 15 in the United States. And while officials said it is reasonable to believe the number of cases will climb, and that there eventually could be local cases, the flu currently is much more of a threat to public health in the Rochester area.
“If it wasn’t for the coronavirus, we would all be talking about the flu,” said Michael Mendoza M.D., commissioner of public health for Monroe County, following a news briefing Thursday afternoon at the county office building. “The alarm bell hasn’t rung as strong, but if it wasn’t for the coronavirus, we’d be sounding the alarm for the flu.”
That’s because the flu is already impacting the region.
“Coronavirus is concerning because it is new, but influenza is serious because it is here,” Mendoza said.
As of Feb. 15, there had been 4,200 confirmed cases of the flu in Monroe County, with 539 leading to hospitalization. Six people died.
Dr. Paul Graman, clinical director of the Infectious Disease Division and hospital epidemiologist for Strong Memorial Hospital and Golisano Children’s Hospital, said Strong had more flu patients last week than the entire flu season combined.
That does not mean the county is downplaying the coronavirus. The World Health Organization has said the world should prepare for a pandemic, and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said officials are taking steps to ensure they are ready if the virus shows up in New York, especially since discovery of the first “community spread” case in California. That means the origin of the virus in the infected person is not known. The other 14 cases in the United States were due to travel to China, or by coming in known contact with a person who had returned from China.
Mendoza said Monroe County will prepare for COVID-19 in much the same manner as it did for the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2002 and the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2012.
“Through good medical care and by following guidelines from reputable sources, we were able then to avoid in the United States the levels of illness seen elsewhere in the world, so I believe we need to approach this new challenge in a similar fashion,” Mendoza said.
On Feb. 1 the county implemented coronavirus precautions for those who had travel-related risk factors. There are 11 people currently in voluntary quarantine, Mendoza said. Another 20 have completed voluntary quarantine after exhibiting no symptoms for 14 days.
Health officials also have access to border and immigration information regarding travelers and are prepared to require isolation for individuals “who we suspect are ill,” he said.
The worldwide threat has the business community on edge. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down another 1,191 points on Thursday. Some business leaders have upcoming trips to Asia and Europe.
“We’re getting some inquiries from members with regard to precautions and steps to take,” said Robert Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. “We have companies with suppliers in China.”
Duffy said he has been in contact with Bello and he said together they want to ensure information shared is credible “and based on the best health expertise we can gather.”
Duffy said the Chamber has put in place its own just-in-case measures, which aren’t much different from influenza precautions. The county advises employers and schools to implore people who are sick to stay home.
“We have business lines we can’t cut off,” Duffy said, “so we’re making arrangements for people who are sick or have concerns about their health to work remotely if necessary.”
What to know about the coronavirus (COVID-19):
» The easiest precautionary measure is good hand hygiene. “Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or more.” And often.
» There is no medication to cure coronavirus. The primary goal of treatment, Mendoza said, would be supportive care “because there is no specific antiviral medicine.”
» Spread is believed to be from close physical contact. “It is a virus the world has not seen until now; therefore we do not have natural immunity,” Mendoza said, adding that any potential vaccine is at least a year away.
» In a study of 72,000 cases in China released at the beginning of the week, 87 percent of infected individuals were between the ages of 30 and 79. The fatality rate was 2.3 percent.
» As a comparison, Mendoza said, “It is deadlier than the seasonal flu but less deadly than SARS. We believe it is more contagious than the season flu, perhaps as contagious as the common cold and far less contagious than chicken pox or measles.”
» Symptoms include a fever and primarily lower respiratory issues, such as a cough and shortness of breath, Mendoza said. The flu is primarily muscle aches and upper respiratory ailments. But, Mendoza said, people shouldn’t attempt to self-diagnose. Call a trained medical professional.
» Symptoms appear in as little as two days after exposure to the virus or as far out as 14 days.
» If you believe you could be ill from the coronavirus or the flu, don’t just show up at the emergency room or urgent care. Call your doctor or the emergency room first. “What we don’t want is someone potentially contagious to just show up at the emergency room,” Mendoza said. That’s because hospitals must ensure the safety of health care workers and other patients. “We can meet you at the door and take you to a protected area,” Graman said.
» If you are healthy, don’t bother wearing a mask. “Wearing a mask will not protect them from a person who is infected,” Mendoza said. “The benefit is virtually zero.” Masks help prevent infected people from spreading the disease.
» Because guidelines are changing rapidly, the county will have updated links on its website (monroecounty.gov) and the health department will provide updates via its Twitter account (@monroehealth).
» If you are traveling abroad, the state department of public health has set up a phone line to answer questions (888-364-3065).