By Lyndsie Kiebert
Regardless of whether a community, region or country has been touched by the virus COVID-19, it seems the so-called “coronavirus” has taken over the social consciousness in recent weeks — including in North Idaho.
The illness is a new strain of the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The community-spread virus presents as a fever and respiratory illness, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “a complete clinical picture with regard to COVID-19 is not fully understood,” due to its novelty.
As of March 4, numbers pointing to confirmed and suspected cases in the United States, as well as fatalities, were in a state of dramatic flux. Sources ranging from The New York Times to the LA Times to CNN, ABC News and the CDC variously reported between 80 and “at least 149” cases of the virus in the U.S. Meanwhile, the death toll had been figured at between nine and 11 — 10 in Washington state and one in California, where according to the LA Times, a health emergency had been declared March 4 for L.A. County.
As those numbers continue to change, one constant seems to be that older people and those with underlying health conditions have proved most susceptible to serious illness or death from the virus.
Though no cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in Idaho — as of March 4 — local agencies are taking proactive steps to educate the public on what can be done to prepare.
The Lake Pend Oreille School District released a statement March 2, announcing heightened measures to disinfect school surfaces and asking anyone who doesn’t feel well stay home from school. The city of Sandpoint shared a press release the same day detailing measures to take in order to best avoid infection.
“Fortunately, from what we know today about the virus, it is containable and can be avoided with simple steps everyone can take,” the city stated in its release.
The Panhandle Health District, with jurisdiction over the five northern counties in Idaho, is the local authority on possible health crises such as COVID-19.
“The risk of transmission within the general public remains low and there are precautions people can take to minimize their risk of contracting any respiratory illness,” PHD officials stated in a March 2 press release. “Additionally, most people who contract coronavirus recover with the use of normal self-care. It is important to utilize the same good illness etiquette used to protect ourselves from the common cold of flu.”
That etiquette includes avoiding sick people or limiting contact if you are sick; covering coughs and sneezes; avoiding hand contact with eyes, nose and mouth; cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects regularly; frequent hand washing or sanitation; and being up to date on all recommended vaccinations.
Those with questions about COVID-19 can call the health district at 877-415-5225. The call center, which was created specifically to field coronavirus concerns, is open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Bonner General Health initiated Incident Command protocol on Thursday, Feb. 27 in response to COVID-19 concerns. Incident Command “is designed and intended for use in both emergency and non-emergency situations,” and “provides hospitals and healthcare facilities of all sizes with tools needed to advance emergency preparedness and response capability,” according to BGH spokesperson Erin Binnall. Incident Command also helps personnel from other local agencies to coordinate a response plan in situations such as a possible COVID-19 outbreak.
“Our priority is for the safety and well-being of our patients, their families and our staff,” Binnall told the Reader. “Bonner General Health is working with our local and regional partners as we all prepare for the coronavirus.”
Binnall confirmed that BGH currently has the means to test a patient for the virus, however that test must be approved by the Panhandle Health District. If PHD determines that the individual meets certain criteria, a test will be administered and sent to the state lab for testing.
“Most people with COVID-19 will have mild illness,” Binnall said. “Not everyone needs to be tested, and testing is not yet widely available.”
People are encouraged to avoid the emergency room unless absolutely necessary. However, if patients have a fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, have a lower respiratory illness — such as a cough or difficulty breathing — and have visited affected areas or been around lab-confirmed virus carriers within the past two weeks and need emergency care, BGH asks the patient to call the hospital’s emergency number ahead of arrival: 208-265-1020.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation and these procedures continue to be updated,” Binnall said.
One of the agencies acting in tandem with the hospital, should COVID-19 make its way to Sandpoint, is Bonner County Emergency Management. Director Bob Howard told the Reader that his department is receiving frequent updates from PHD regarding the situation, and that the county has exercised pandemic response plans in the past as part of annual training procedures.
Howard also said part of his job is to educate people on how to prepare for emergency events, such as prolonged power outages or major snow storms. He said he advises people to keep supplies on hand to last at least two weeks in the case that they can’t leave their homes due to any number of circumstances — including illness.
For more information on the coronavirus and continual updates on its prevalence in the United States, visit cdc.gov.
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