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HUDSON—Health officials in Columbia County say they are ready to deal with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) should it show up here.

No one has presented with the criteria necessary for testing,” William Van Slyke, Columbia Memorial Health vice president of Marketing and External Affairs, told The Columbia Paper this week. But if someone does, “We are prepared, protocols are in place to handle it.” Along with state, local and federal health agencies, “We are in a constant state of readiness,” he said.

An outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus was first detected in China and has now been detected in almost 70 locations internationally, including in the United States.

The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” January 30 and a day later Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar, II, declared a public health emergency for the United States to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website (www.cdc.gov).

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death for confirmed COVID-19 cases as of March 4.

Symptoms, which may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure include: fever, cough and shortness of breath.

The CDC recommends that people call their healthcare professional if they develop symptoms, and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 or if they have recently traveled from an area with widespread or ongoing community spread of COVID-19.

Do not freak out. Do not go around wearing masks,” Columbia County Public Health Director John J. “Jack” Mabb told The Columbia Paper by phone Tuesday. In New York State, “two individuals have been confirmed to have the virus,” he said.

As of Wednesday, New York had six confirmed cases.

People should take the same precautions by following the same recommendations they do for the flu. “Cough and sneeze into your elbow, use hand sanitizer, don’t go to work/stay home if you have the flu or respiratory issues.”

Mr. Mabb said he suspects the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases will grow as people who have been walking around with it are eventually tested.

Because in 80% of the cases symptoms are mild and not especially noticeable, people continue to go about their business and help spread the virus, he said, adding in 20% of cases symptoms are serious, like the flu, and of those between 3 and 4% are hospitalized.

Mr. Mabb said, people who have vacations planned “should go and have fun” as long as they do not travel to countries where the CDC recommends that all nonessential travel be avoided. Those places are China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan.

Mr. Mabb said he just returned from a cruise to Mexico and Jamaica and has learned that the cruise line will no longer travel to Jamaica or Grand Cayman Island because those places have asked the cruise line not to bring people–and possibly the coronavirus–there. “I got in just under the wire,” he said.

People who meet the criteria for being tested for the virus have fever and dry cough and have traveled to a country where the virus is widespread and transmission is sustained or ongoing; or they have symptoms and have had direct contact with someone known to have the virus.

The county health department does not have test kits and does not do the testing, but refers symptomatic people to the hospital.

Testing requires a specimen from deep within the respiratory system, Mr. Mabb said, something the health department is not equipped to do. Once someone is sent to the hospital he or she is placed in a negative pressure room, where all the air stays in the room and is not allowed to escape.

At last count, Mr. Mabb said, the virus is now in more than 70 countries. On Thursday, February 27, the number was 46. “It’s moving quickly,” he said.

Local school districts are also preparing for battle with COVID-19.

At an Ichabod Crane Central School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, March 3, Ichabod Crane Superintendent Jason Thomson, who has been on the job for a month, said “a lot of questions have been popping up” about the coronavirus, according to notes from the meeting provided by Columbia Paper reporter Emilia Teasdale.

The superintendent said the Facilities Department already has cleaning processes and procedures in place. “We’re following the CDC regs,” he said, noting he will be meeting with the county health department. He said a letter will be going home soon to parents.

Asked by a board member whether the state Education Department had any information or regulations for school, Mr. Thomson said he had not heard of any, but called it a “fluid situation.” He said the district would keep the public informed.

Ichabod Crane Middle School Principal Tim Farley said the school is “being proactive” and will “get information out to the parents.” He added, “It’s been a bad flu season.”

The Taconic Hills and Chatham school districts sent home letters to parents about the situation.

The March 3 letter sent to Taconic Hills parents, staff and community regarding coronavirus from Superintendent of Schools Neil Howard, Jr., says in part:

The district is monitoring the situation and following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NYS Departments of Health and Education and the Columbia County Department of Health. The district has infectious disease protocols in place and has been focused on cleaning and disinfecting all school areas including classrooms, cafeterias and school buses to help minimize the spread of viruses and a variety of other illnesses.

At this time, there is no need to cancel school or social events. With that said, our administrative team is taking proactive measures and discussing plans in the event that schools were to be closed, or if there were a high level of student absences. We are considering various scenarios and will work with the NYS Education Department to prepare in the event the need arises,” the letter said.

The letter notes that “there are currently no vaccines available to protect against this virus. Like with all viruses and illnesses, there’s a tremendous reliance on individual precautions. The NYS Department of Health recommends the following ways to minimize the spread of all respiratory viruses, including COVID-2019:

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands

Avoid close contact with people who are sick

Stay home when you are sick, especially if you have a fever or cough

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing. If you use a tissue, throw it in the trash and wash your hands afterwards

Routinely clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

The letter says that the state has established a Novel Coronavirus Hotline, which can provide additional information. Call 1-888-364-3065 with questions or concerns about travel and symptoms.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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