After an individual in St. Clair County was tested for the coronavirus last weekend, leaders from across Monroe County met Tuesday morning to discuss plans to handle the coronavirus outbreak.
Representatives from the City of Waterloo, Waterloo School District, Gibault Catholic High School, Ss. Peter & Paul Catholic School, Columbia Police Department, Columbia School District, Immaculate Conception School, Columbia EMS, Monroe County EMS, Monroe County, Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, Village of Valmeyer, Valmeyer School District and Village of Hecker were among those at the meeting.
“The reason we’re together is to start the dialogue on the coronavirus,” Monroe County Commissioner Vicki Koerber said, noting the St. Clair County patient did not have the illness. “It’s better to be proactive and have open dialogue rather than reactive.”
Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner and Monroe County Safety Coordinator Kevin Scheibe led the meeting, discussing the virus itself, suggesting ways to slow its spread and answering questions.
This novel coronavirus, which is named COVID-19, was first detected in China in late 2019.
It has since spread to countries across the globe, with latest estimates saying over 92,000 people have the illness, about 80,000 of whom are in China. A little over 3,000 people worldwide have died from the virus,
In the United States, there were 106 confirmed cases as of Tuesday afternoon and nine fatalities. Three of those cases are from the Chicago area.
Wagner said the virus closely resembles the flu, with its symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath and causing respiratory tract illnesses.
“It’s more contagious and it’s a little more severe (than the flu),” Wagner said. “The death rate is a little higher right now. But most people are going to recover, much like having the seasonal flu.”
Wagner said the death rate worldwide is around 2-3 percent, but in the United States that number will probably be closer to 1-2 percent.
Those who have serious effects from the virus are those who are already compromised, such as the elderly.
“Eighty percent of people that get it will have flu-like symptoms, might be sick for a day or two and then recover,” Wagner said. “Twenty percent will need medical care of some type or will seek medical care.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that human coronaviruses most commonly spread through the air by coughing or sneezing, close personal contact like shaking hands, touching something with the virus on it then touching your face with unwashed hands and, rarely, fecal contamination.
Wagner said it appears the virus will continue to spread, according to the IDPH.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be contained,” he said. “Within the next two weeks, probably, we’ll be at the point where quarantines are no longer effective. Then it’s just going to be prevention and trying not to overwhelm the medical staff.”
In short, Wagner said all the government can do about the virus is quarantine sick people, currently for two weeks – voluntarily or via court order – and educate individuals.
Scheibe helped explain how local leaders can do that, focusing on several key areas based on discussion at the meeting.
The primary focus should be on communication about the virus, including how to prevent it.
“We’ve got to communicate,” Scheibe said. “We’ve got to get the message out. It’s got to be a persistent message.”
Scheibe also exhorted the leaders to develop contingency plans for if there is an outbreak.
That is particularly important for schools.
“We have to think about what we’re going to do if we have a decontamination situation in one of our campuses,” Scheibe said.
If there is an outbreak at a school, most likely that building would close, but that is up to each school to decide. Similarly, schools must decide how they will respond to someone merely being tested for COVID-19.
Scheibe also encouraged school leaders to alter their protocol and obtain more information when children or their parents call in sick, something the Columbia school district has already done.
Additionally, Scheibe said it is important to decontaminate common areas with disinfectants like Lysol wipes and for individuals who are sick to stay home from work or school.
Those who get sick and develop symptoms associated with COVID-19 within 14 days of traveling to an area with sustained or widespread transmission should call their health care provider, who will work with the health department to determine if testing for the virus is appropriate.
Illinois has all three of its labs open for testing, so results should be back in a day.
There is currently no treatment for the virus, but individuals can relieve symptoms by taking pain and fever medications, drinking plenty of liquids and staying home and resting.
Wagner said experts should know in a few months if they can develop a vaccine, but creating that treatment is still 12-18 months away. Wagner said the virus will probably be around two or three years.
The best prevention tips are to wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands.
Other preventative measures are to avoid close contact with sick individuals, stay home when you are sick, cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and throw that tissue away, frequently clean and disinfect commonly touched objects and surfaces and get the flu shot to help protect against the seasonal flu.
An ineffective prevention measure is wearing a mask, as Wagner said those are typically unhelpful when used by the general public and are needed by medical professionals.
To stay updated on the coronavirus, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.