By Bridget Shileny
Wright County Monitor Editor
The inevitable has happened. As of early this week, several people in Iowa have tested positive for COVID-19, more commonly called coronavirus, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH). Local health officials do not find this development surprising and expect more cases to be detected. Because of that, plans and preparations have been made for handling the illness even here in Wright County.
Much information has already been circulated about coronavirus (including in the last two issues of the Monitor provided by the Wright County Health Department). As IDPH explains, there are various coronaviruses, four of which are very common, relatively mild viruses that cause illness similar to the common cold.
Three of the strains of coronavirus are rarer and can cause severe illness, including the 2019 novel coronavirus, COVID-19, that is presently a concern. Symptoms of the illness include fever, cough and shortness of breath, occurring anywhere between 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. IDPH also notes older patients and those with chronic medical conditions may be at higher risk of illness. Iowa Specialty Hospital doctor, Michael McLoughlin, also adds that at present, the biggest risk factor is if people have been in contact with someone who has been confirmed positive for COVID-19 or have been in one of the major countries known to have the illness, including China, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea.
If people feel that they may have those symptoms or risk factors, they understandably may feel the need to seek medical attention. And rest assured, local officials already have preparations in place to handle potential coronavirus patients. However, they also want to inform people that the procedures to assess patients may be different from your average sickness.
McLoughlin and Wright County Environmental Health Director Sandra McGrath, R.N. discussed what sick people should do if they are symptomatic. They implore people not to just walk into the local clinic or hospital. Rather, they say that people should call ahead and tell their healthcare provider what they are experiencing.
The advice people receive after calling may not be what one would expect. McGrath explains that people may be asked to stay home and not come to hospital at all in the beginning. The hospital will contact Public Health, who is handling the matter. McGrath said, that in that case, a sick patient who may be suspected of having COVID-19 would be contacted by Public Health, who will monitor them at home. This would involve a nurse checking in on the patient multiple times a day, monitoring their fever and other symptoms in case they should worsen. They may test the patient for the virus if IDPH recommends that.
McGrath says that home monitoring is out of concern for public health and to prevent the illness from spreading. “We are not trying to blow people off. We will take care of people, but we can’t ignore the risks of spreading,” she emphasized. “And if people should worsen while they are being monitored, of course we will get them to a hospital.”
This may seem like the opposite of what people assume should happen if they are sick- I don’t feel good, so I go to the clinic or hospital. However, McLoughlin says that only a small percentage of patients who actually do have the illness will even benefit from hospitalization. He adds that there is no specific treatment for COVID-19, and a hospital could only treat symptoms. He hopes people heed the advice if they are asked to stay home, of course in order to prevent getting others sick, but also because all the other illnesses and conditions they are treating at the hospital will not go away with this virus. “We want to slow down the illness enough so that our systems don’t get overwhelmed,” he stresses.
While concerns about juggling coronavirus patients and the general hospital population may seem far off, other local officials are still working to stay prepared on all levels. Clarion Ambulance Director Tiffon Willey says her EMTs are equipped with proper gear, including masks and gowns, if they have to respond to patients with ANY highly contagious illness. Wright County Emergency Management Coordinator Jarika Eisentrager stated her department is staying abreast of the situation with daily webinars, meeting and most of all, communication throughout the county. “We are being proactive and are working with all public health officials and agencies to have plans in place.”
Presently, none of the local officials feel like the current threat of COVID-19 is exceedingly high for Iowans. As an IDPH fact sheet noted last week, “the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is low.” Yet, McGrath reiterated that people should work to prevent the spread of ALL viruses, including coronavirus, by thorough hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home when sick. McLoughlin added that there is no need for the general population to buy and wear masks but said if you do come into the hospital with a respiratory illness, do don a mask, which every entrance at all Iowa Specialty Hospitals has.
In the end, both McLoughlin and McGrath are confident that the local healthcare providers and agencies are ready for COVID-19 in the event they need to be. McLoughlin emphasized, “Our goal would ultimately be to keep the outbreak at a low enough level to take care of it without disrupting other services.”