Summit County health officials say robust plans are in place to deal with possible coronavirus outbreak
It’s a matter of when, not if, the novel coronavirus comes to Utah, Summit County Health Department officials said at a meeting Monday evening as they stressed the importance of good hygiene, reliance on trusted sources of information and what they called robust public health emergency plans they say are capable of guiding the county through a potential outbreak.
The situation is rapidly evolving, said Health Department Director Rich Bullough at a Board of Health meeting Monday night to a group of about a dozen members of the public who attended the briefing.
“It will almost certainly happen in Utah,” Bullough said. “We’re going to have cases here, almost certainly going to have community spread here.”
Summit County Emergency Manager Chris Crowley said that the county maintains five emergency plans that will help guide the response to an outbreak. The strategic national stockpile plan, for example, enables the county to tap into emergency resources like vaccine supplies or money, he explained, while other plans reach a level of specificity that includes which locations, like high school gymnasiums, could function as points of distribution in the case of a mass vaccination.
Summit County finance director Matt Leavitt said the county maintains an emergency fund that is earmarked for disasters, though it is not limited to Health Department expenditures. County Manager Tom Fisher would have the authority to access those funds as he sees fit, Leavitt wrote in an email.
There is no vaccine for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, which as of Tuesday had claimed more than 3,000 lives and reached nearly 90,000 confirmed cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. More than 100 cases and six deaths had been confirmed in the United States.
While there have been no confirmed cases in the state as of Tuesday, one patient is being treated at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray after contracting the disease and being quarantined on a cruise ship in Asia.
As of Tuesday morning, the Utah Board of Health began testing at its lab, according to Charla Haley, a spokesperson for the board. Previously, samples collected in Utah had to be shipped to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to a two- to four-day turnaround time. Now, the test can be returned within 24 hours, though it only signals a presumptive positive. A positive test sample would be sent to the CDC, and the patient would be requested to limit exposure to others and, in effect, self-quarantine, Haley said.
COVID-19 presents with cold- and flu-like symptoms, which are common this type of year, Board of Health members pointed out. That leads to fears that everyone with a cough will want to be tested, possibly overwhelming health officials.
But not everybody who wants a test can get one.
Haley said only people who meet the CDC’s guidelines for testing are receiving the test. The guidelines include a conjunction of symptoms and exposure to a confirmed case; symptoms that require hospitalization after recent travel to a country where the coronavirus is present; and severe symptoms with no alternative explanation readily available, like testing positive for influenza, according to the CDC’s website.
Summit County nursing director Carolyn Rose said that the Health Department is tracking a few people in the area who have symptoms that resemble COVID-19 but did not meet the threshold to be tested. She said the department calls them to check in on their symptoms and requests that they limit contact with others for a 14-day period.
Bullough said the mortality rate of the disease is currently thought to be 1.4%, but the disease can more easily spread than other deadly pathogens.
Coronaviruses can remain infectious on surfaces for up to nine days at room temperature, according to Bullough’s presentation to the Board of Health, and it is unclear how well, or if, existing anti-viral medication works on the virus.
“This isn’t being overblown. This is real,” Bullough said. “We need to prepare, we don’t need to panic.”
As the local health officer, Bullough said he is empowered to impose a quarantine and close schools, though he cautioned that the situation is nowhere near that level. He added that any decision to close schools would almost certainly involve the county’s school boards.
The three area school superintendents were set to meet with Health Department officials this week. The Park City School District sent a letter to parents advising them it was reviewing its existing influenza response plan and coordinating with health officials.
Bullough said the Health Department was working closely with business partners, including Vail Resorts, the school districts and law enforcement agencies.
Health officials have said the most important things to do are to frequently wash hands with hot water and soap, use hand sanitizer, stay away from sick people and to stay home if sick.
They have set up a website with COVID-19 updates at summitcountyhealth.org/coronavirus/ and recommend the Utah Board of Health, the CDC and the World Health Organization as other trusted sources.
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Park City officials are expected to present information about upcoming work on the Treasure acreage designed to guard against a wildfire, as well as a series of other City Hall projects and programs, at an open house that is scheduled next week.