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On alert: Area hospitals preparing to respond to coronavirus threat

Pedestrians wear face masks to prevent spread of

Pedestrians wear face masks to prevent spread of the coronavirus in Hong Kong. The virus was first detected in Wuhan City, China, in December, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Credit: Getty Images / Anthony Kwan

Hospitals throughout Long Island are on alert for signs of the emerging coronavirus that has sickened hundreds of people in China, some fatally, and recently was detected in the United States.

While no cases have been found in the New York area, administrators at medical centers are educating staffers on how to interview incoming patients and advising them when to don extra protective gear. They have had some practice with other infectious diseases, medical staff from the region said.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, we have already gone through the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] epidemic,” said Dr. Mark Jarrett, chief quality officer for Northwell Health. “We have well-laid-out plans for how to handle these types of viruses.”

The virus behind the outbreak, 2019-nCoV, was first detected in Wuhan City in December 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients have a mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Health officials first focused on a link between victims and a large seafood and live animal market, but now believe it is also being spread from person to person. 

Earlier this week, the CDC announced the first case in the United States, an individual from Washington State who had returned from Wuhan on Jan. 15.

Authorities in China announced this week they were suspending transportation in and out of Wuhan in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. They extended the lockdown to the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou.

Some 830 people have been infected, and 25 people between the ages of 48 and 89 have died. All but one of the fatalities were in and around Wuhan.

SARS, a viral respiratory illness also caused by a coronavirus, first emerged in China in late 2002. According to the World Health Organization, it caused more than 8,000 illnesses and 700 deaths around the globe in less than a year. There were 27 cases and no deaths in the United States.

Hospitals officials in this region said they have developed protocols for those emergencies.

“When people come in, they will be asked if they have been to Wuhan City in the last 14 days,” Jarrett said. “If they say yes, they will be isolated. The staff is being retrained about what they need to wear in terms of the CDC recommendations for personal protective equipment such as goggles and a face mask.” 

Specimens are sent to the CDC, which has developed a test that can diagnose the 2019-nCoV virus.

NYU Langone, which operates NYU Winthrop in Mineola along with five hospitals in New York City, said its infectious disease teams are receiving constant updates on the coronavirus.

The health system has infectious disease doctors on call 24/7 in case a patient with coronavirus comes into one of their hospitals, said Dr. Reed Caldwell, assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone Health and associate chief of emergency medicine at NYU Langone-Brooklyn.

"Two weeks ago, we had a systemwide and site-specific discussion about how to recognize an outbreak such as this," Caldwell said, adding that NYU Winthrop was part of that discussion. "We look at their risk factors, such as travel. We need to know where they've been."

Staff from the CDC has been screening travelers at airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as Kennedy Airport. This week, the agency announced it will expand screening to airports in Atlanta and Chicago.

Officials from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy Airport, said they are working in collaboration with the CDC.

"They are establishing protocols and procedures for screening passengers arriving from that region into John F. Kennedy International Airport," the Port Authority said in a statement. "We are fully committed to assisting the CDC as necessary as it implements these procedures in collaboration with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the New York State Department of Health, the New York City Department of Health and other state and local authorities.”

Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chair of medicine and chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, said they have sent the CDC advisory to the entire medical staff.

“The first and most important thing we do is educate our staff,” Glatt said. “We tend to be overly cautious.”

Glatt said the precautions are similar to how patients with the flu are treated.

Dr. Patrick O'Shaughnessy, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Catholic Health Services, said "we prepare for this type of situation pretty regularly."

He said the key to correct screening will be to ask the right questions, especially since coronavirus symptoms are similar to influenza.

"You'll often see a fever and cough," he said, adding that the key screening question will be about a patient's travel history.

Medical professionals said they are preparing to address the challenge as best they know should it come, but don't see any reason for panic.

"My guidance is to not have mass hysteria about this,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It looks like there will be more patients, but the symptoms are like influenza, and most people recover."

With AP

CORONAVIRUS SO FAR ...

  • Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illnesses in people and others that circulate among animals. The United States saw an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which is a coronavirus.
  • Symptoms of the new coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
  • Seventeen people have died in the outbreak, all in and around Wuhan City, China. Some 830 people have been infected, the vast majority in Wuhan.

SOURCES: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Associated Press

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