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The emerging and rapidly changing coronavirus outbreak has many concerned, scared and even panicked over the situation. However, local health professionals don’t believe an outbreak in Southwestern Pennsylvania is likely.

“I would not be too worried about this,” said Dr. Katheryn Moffett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at West Virginia University Medicine. “I’m not alarmed or concerned.”

Moffett explained that the coronavirus isn’t just one virus, but actually a large family of viruses, some of which affect people, as well as animals like camels, bats and cats. However, the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s health departments are closely monitoring is a new virus that causes respiratory illness and can spread person to person. The virus was first identified during an outbreak in Wuhan, China. Now, however cases have been confirmed in other countries, including six in the U.S.

No vaccine exists for the disease and no medication to treat it.

“This strain is unique because it’s not related to all of the other ones that have been in common circulation,” said Moffett.

The fact that there isn’t a lot of information about the disease, no vaccine and no medication is just adding to the public’s concern.

Another troubling factor is that many of the symptoms are not only similar, but identical to the symptoms of other viruses, like strains of the flu, and it comes at the peak of flu season.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the symptoms of the human coronavirus are a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever and a general feeling of being unwell.

So, a local infection control specialist said, anyone who hasn’t traveled to China or come in contact with someone who just came back from the region, should not worry.

“Individuals should be more concerned if they have traveled to the areas, specifically Wuhan, China, within the past 14 days or if they have been in the company of someone that has traveled to Wuhan, China in the past 14 days,” said Kathleen Rosatti, MSN, RN, director of medical outcomes, patient safety and infection control at Excela Health. “As the virus spreads to other areas, individuals should be forthright in letting healthcare providers know that they have traveled and that they are concerned.”

Fourteen days is considered the maximum incubation period for the virus, so individuals who traveled anywhere more than 14 days ago are also unlikely to contract the disease.

Air travelers should be prepared to answer questions not only about where they’ve traveled to and from, but also about their health as health professionals try to control the spread of the disease. However, if you are home and start to show symptoms and are concerned, Rosatti and other health professionals agree with what to do next.

“If possible, they should CALL their primary care providers and ask for next steps over the phone. In the event that they have to been seen in an emergency room, they should let the first staff person with whom they have contact know that they are concerned and share their travel history. It is also imperative for individuals who would require transport via EMS to share the information with the transport team.”

Prevention practices are similar to what is advised for the spread of the flu: wash your hands a lot with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and when you sneeze or cough, don’t do it into the air, cough or sneeze into your sleeve to lessen the exposure.

Other suggestions include:

n Clean surfaces frequently, including countertops, light switches, cell phones, remotes, and other frequently touched items.

n Contain: if you are sick, stay home until you are feeling better.

Recently, the World Health Organization designated the outbreak as a “global health emergency,” so the situation isn’t just about China anymore. In addition, the first case of the disease being spread person to person has been documented in Illinois.

Despite the recent news, local health professionals still don’t believe our region needs to be concerned - yet. There are health professionals in place to ensure that physicians, hospitals and other health organizations are prepared. One of those is Penny Wright, invention prevention and control manager at Monongahela Valley Hospital.

Wright said the hospital is on the Pennsylvania Health Alert system through the Department of Health. The system alerts hospitals to health advisories and beginning in early January, she was alerted to the situation with the virus and forwarded the information to the appropriate designees in the health system.

She also continues to monitor the status regularly for updates through the DOH and CDC and evaluates what actions need to be taken at the hospital. A risk assessment is taken to determine what level of preparation the hospital needs to do, including putting policies into place, having equipment available, along with appropriate staffing needs.

Because the virus situation is a fluid situation and changing daily, if not several times during the day, Wright has been getting a lot of updates. At the time of the interview, 20 airports have open investigation into persons traveling from China and Philadelphia’s airport was recently added to that list. Because Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, that elevates the hospital’s risk assessment because of the chance that a person who may have been exposed to the disease exposing other people – not just travelers.

Although Wright understands the concerns, she suggests anyone concerned visit that state Department of Health at www.health.pa.gov or the CDC at www.cdc.gov for excellent resources on the disease.

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