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Local health department, hospitals prepared for COVID-19

A North Carolina man who tested positive for COVID-19, or novel coronavirus, is in isolation in his Wake County home. But in Beaufort County, the risk of contracting the disease remains very low, according to Jim Madson, director of the Beaufort County Health Department.

“It’s in the news and is newsworthy, so it’s obviously causing a lot of anxiety,” Madson said. “The big thing right now is handing out information and answering people’s questions.”

Madson said he’d been expecting the virus to show up in North Carolina, but not as quickly as it did: Feb. 22, when the Wake County man flew into RDU from Seattle, Washington.

“I knew it was going to happen eventually,” Madson said. “The health department has a team that’s been together for a long time. We plan for these things, just in case they happen.”

The EPI (short for epidemiological) team is made up of the health department director, staff, nurses and lab employees, along with representatives from Vidant Beaufort Hospital, EMS, emergency management and a nurse from Beaufort County Schools, according to Madson.

“We’ve been practicing for this. Because we had the first case in North Carolina, the team is going to be meeting once a week. Normally, we meet every three months,” Madson said.

Though the likelihood of contracting novel coronavirus is low, and most cases are mild and similar to the common cold, Vidant hospitals are prepared to treat patients with the virus, according to a Vidant Health press release issued Wednesday.

“Vidant’s process and protocol for COVID-19 is similar to that of flu,” Dr. Keith Ramsey, Vidant Health’s infection control chief, said in the press release. “Our team members are trained and prepared for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. This includes safely transferring the patient if needed, prepping isolation rooms, placing the patient in isolation, wearing masks and gowns and taking all necessary steps to protect patients, visitors and team members.”

Madson said the health department will be notified if a person is returning from an area of novel coronavirus outbreak — primarily Italy, South Korea and China — and protocol calls for isolating that person for two weeks.

“They’d self-isolate in their home then we’d monitor them for the 14 days; see who they’ve been in contact with,” Madson said. “We have that system in place ready to go if we need to.”

Madson said the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is giving COVID-19 testing kits to health departments across the state.

If a local person has been in contact with a person carrying coronavirus, then that person should call their health provider and the local health department and plan to isolate themselves for 14 days.

Overall, health officials urge people to remain calm about the virus and take commonsense measures to prevent the spread of disease: wash your hands and fingers tips with soap and water for 20 seconds; cough into your sleeve; avoid touching your face; stay home if sick; and monitoring the CDC and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services websites for the latest news and information.

Madson said the advice is good also for another epidemic — one that has been much closer to home than novel coronavirus.

“I’m more worried about the flu in our community, because we’re still in the midst of an epidemic of influenza — there’s been 18,000 deaths (in the U.S.) due to flu,” Madson said.

Beaufort County Community College representatives also spoke out Wednesday against misinformation regarding novel coronavirus, particularly about a rumor started on its campus: “During a class on March 4, a student falsely announced that a relative had been present on an airline flight with someone who has subsequently been diagnosed with coronavirus (COVID-19),” a statement from the college reads. “The college investigated the claim and found it to be untrue. The relative did not fly on the same flight, nor on the same date, nor from the same destination as the reported case in Wake County. There has been no case of the virus at the college. All operations are continuing as normal.

“At this time, the Center for Disease Control has only identified one case in North Carolina, and that is in Wake County. For most of the American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.

“BCCC will continue to monitor the possible spread in the United States on a daily basis. The college is prepared to work with public health officials should the virus spread to our region.”