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Missouri Health Officials, Hospitals Prepare For Coronavirus Patients

A scanning electron microscope image shows the novel coronavirus (yellow) against human cells (pink.) 2-27-20
A scanning electron microscope image shows the novel coronavirus (yellow) against human cells (pink.)

Missouri health officials are taking steps to protect people against the potential spread of the new coronavirus that has sickened thousands in China.

There haven’t been any recorded cases in Missouri and only two in Illinois. But health systems are asking people more questions and creating plans to respond to any potentially infectious patients who come through their doors.

“Our motto is, ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,’” said Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “In our case, we would much rather be over-prepared than under-prepared.”

The novel coronavirus emerged late last year in Wuhan, China. Since then, tens of thousands of people in China have contracted the illness, which causes respiratory problems and fever, and more than 2,000 have died.

So far, the state has investigated approximately 50 potential coronavirus cases based on symptoms and patients’ travel histories but has uncovered none, Williams said. Next week, a state-run lab in Jefferson City that can identify the virus will be up and running, and samples won’t need to be sent to federal officials for testing. Illinois has already established such a lab.

The World Health Organization has declared the spread of the virus as a “public health emergency of international concern.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for state health departments and hospitals to help identify patients and limit potential spread of the disease.

Officials at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have met daily to assess the state’s risk and develop plans should a patient with the virus be identified in Missouri, Williams said.

If a patient who has recently traveled to China and has respiratory illness arrives at a hospital or clinic, doctors notify state health officials, who then contact the CDC.

BJC Healthcare has created a “virtual command center” in which hospital employees across the region can create contingency plans and update staff on proper protocol, said Dr. Hilary Babcock, a Washington University infectious disease specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

For example, hospital staff ask patients who arrive at the emergency room and outpatient clinics where they have traveled and about their symptoms, she said. If a patient is suspected to have the virus, hospital employees will quarantine them and limit their interaction with staff.

Signs at the Barnes-Jewish Center for Advanced Medicine alert patients to disclose if they think they may have symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
Credit Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Signs at the Barnes-Jewish Center for Advanced Medicine alert patients to disclose if they think they may have symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

BJC has placed large signs at hospital entrances alerting patients to disclose any foreign trips or symptoms.

Hospitals also have been checking their inventories of personal protective equipment such as face masks and respirators, said Dr. Alexander Garza, chief medical officer at SSM Health.

Babcock and Garza said hospitals are accustomed to dealing with viral outbreaks. Systems followed similar protocol with SARS, another coronavirus, as well as MERS and the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, Babcock said.

“It’s not anything that’s really foreign to us," Garza said. "It’s a little amped up because of the novelty of the virus, but as far being able to handle taking care of those patients and using the proper equipment, that’s something we do day in and day out.”

Babcock said health workers are taking intense precautions because the virus is new. Thereis no vaccineto protect against it, and public health officials still don’t know how deadly or contagious it is.

“A lot of the initial response from hospitals and health care systems is that we don’t know what all those factors are going to turn out to be,” Babcock said. “We need to be prepared to manage at any different level.”

Hospitals can learn a lot about how the new coronavirus may spread by looking at past epidemics. There have been coronaviruses circulating in the U.S. for years, Garza said.

“It could be possible this gets into a normal circulation,” he said. “On the other hand, it could burn itself out much like SARS did, because of all the strict quarantine measures.”

Public health experts in the Midwest say people in the U.S. are at low risk. They say the public should be more concerned with the flu, which killed 92 people in Missouri during the 2018-20 flu season.

The same steps can protect against both the flu and the novel coronavirus, Williams said.

“Despite our modern technology, at the end of the day, what really prevents these from spreading is good old public health,” he said. “Washing your hands, being very cognizant to not put your hands to your face, and good, robust health care.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.