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How bad is coronavirus? Hall County health officials weigh in
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A display at the entrance of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center North Patient Tower offers visitors tissues, mask and hand sanitizer to prevent the spread of illnesses, now including coronavirus. - photo by Scott Rogers

Health officials are calling it a global concern, and with Atlanta an international city and major travel hub, the new coronavirus is far from being dismissed by local medical providers.

Gainesville-based Northeast Georgia Health System recently created a task force, “including leaders from across the system, to begin preparing for the possibility that our facilities and staff may see patients with the 2019 novel coronavirus,” said Sandy Bozarth, manager of infection prevention and control.

The hospital system has been following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and is working to ensure staff is “diligent in following standard protocol to ask patients about their travel history,” Bozarth said.

“In the event that additional preparation is needed, this team will move swiftly to follow any new guidance.”

Bozarth said that, “just like protocols we follow for the flu, we regularly ask patients if they have any respiratory symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or a cough, and ask them to wear a face mask to protect the health of other patients and our staff. It is our priority to prevent the spread of any highly contagious illness.”

Coronavirus, part of a family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, has caused more than 500 deaths in mainland China — where it is believed to have started — and one in the Philippines, and more than 28,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus globally.

The World Health Organization, or WHO, has confirmed 12 cases of the virus in the United States. According to wire and CDC reports, they are in California, Washington, Arizona, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Coronavirus fact sheet

What: A large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The outbreak in China is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

How it spreads: Person to person, thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.

Symptoms: fever, cough and shortness of breath

Complications: Human coronaviruses can sometimes cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses, such as pneumonia or bronchitis. This is more common in people with cardiopulmonary disease, people with weakened immune systems, infants and older adults. The death rate has been reported at 2%.

Vaccine or cure: None. People can seek medical care to help relieve symptoms.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, Associated Press 

The CDC updates a map every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and WHO also is updating a map showing confirmed cases globally.

Two jets carrying about 350 Americans arrived last week in California at Travis Air Force Base after fleeing the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. The travelers are subject to a 14-day federal quarantine under orders from the CDC.

“More of the people … going and coming from China are going to be probably more on the West Coast,” said Dr. Andrew Reisman, a physician at Gainesville-based Longstreet Clinic and president of the Medical Association of Georgia.

Still, concerns about international travel have even reached Hall County’s doorstep.

Brenau University has put its scheduled trips to China on hold for student ambassadors and faculty.

The school is maintaining its “vigilant dedication to the health and well-being of all university students and employees,” said Anne Skleder, the university’s president, adding that Brenau has no students or faculty in China now, nor have any returned close to the time of the outbreak.

The new virus is also a major focus for the World Health Organization, which on Jan. 30 labeled it as a “public health emergency of international concern.”

It spreads person to person, and has flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and shortness of breath. It can develop into pneumonia and become fatal.

The virus has no treatment, although people can seek medical care to help relieve symptoms. And because it is new, a vaccine isn’t available.

“It is very virulent,” Reisman said. “And this (new virus) has a particularly long incubation period. It’s about two weeks before you actually get sick, and by that time, you may have passed it to a whole bunch of people.”

Atlanta-based Northside Hospital, which has medical offices in Hall, is “continuously monitoring the novel coronavirus outbreak,” spokeswoman Katherine Watson said in an email.

“Our infection control specialists and clinical leadership have a coordinated and comprehensive plan to handle infectious disease patients, adhering to the CDC’s recommendations and guidelines for prevention, surveillance and treatment.”

If a patient has any clinical symptoms and has traveled within the last 14 days from Wuhan city, China, or if they have been in close contact with a person “who is under investigation for 2019 novel coronavirus, the patient is masked and taken directly to an airborne Isolation room, where they will remain while in the hospital,” Watson said.

While officials expect the number of confirmed cases to keep growing, they point out that the flu remains a bigger health threat to people in the U.S. than coronavirus, causing tens of thousands of deaths a year.

People “are at a much higher risk for that,” Reisman said. “There are people worried about the coronavirus and they haven’t gotten a flu vaccine.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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