With the spread of the COVID-19 or coronavirus in Delaware now “likely,” state health officials are stepping up their efforts to register and monitor anyone in the state who may have visited a country in the last two weeks where the deadly virus is most active.
At a news conference today at ChristianaCare, officials with the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH) announced the shift in their strategy to battle the spread of COVID-19 through a combination of revised monitoring guidelines, a new coronavirus call center and, for the first time, in-state testing.
“Our efforts, where previously they were focused on containing the virus, are now shifting to a focus on mitigating the impact of the virus,” Delaware Division of Public Health Director Dr. Karyl Rattay, who is leading the state’s response to the emerging public health risk.
There are no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Delaware. “The thing to understand today is this: the risk for the average Delawarean and the average American remains low,” said Dept. of Health and Social Services Cabinet Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker.
Two Delawareans tested today for the coronavirus
This news came along with the 6 pm announcement by the DPH tonight that two possible cases of coronavirus disease 2019 have just come back negative. These were the first individuals in the state to be tested locally for the coronavirus. DPH’s lab in Smyrna now has the capability to test for coronavirus disease.
The in-state testing at a DPH lab now can take place test in a matter of hours — somewhere between eight and 10. Prior cases involved sending blood samples to the CDC in Atlanta, a process requiring 48 to 72-hours.
Dr. Rattay said the persons who were tested today reside in Kent County and had recently travel to a country under a travel alert.
Previously three people in Delaware were under investigation, and all tested negative to the virus.
Mandatory monitoring of anyone who has traveled to China
DPH is also monitoring 14 individuals who have visited mainland China in the last 14 days. Dr. Rattay says they are asymptomatic but under quarantine. “So that means they are not going to school or work during that period. And very importantly, they are to contact us if they have any symptoms consistent with coronavirus like a fever, cough or shortness of breath.”
“Despite the increased number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States, the immediate health risk to Delawareans and most Americans remains low,” Dr. Rattay said at the press conference at ChristianaCare’s John H. Ammon Medical Educational Center at Christiana Hospital.
“We are grateful now to have the ability to test for the virus at our lab and will announce the results of the two patients in Kent County as soon as we can. Going forward, we will continue to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and work with our health care partners to determine when it is appropriate to test patients for coronavirus disease,” said Dr. Rattay.
The new DPH call center to field inquiries from the public will open sometime this week. The phone number will be announced when the call center is ready.
New guidelines for people entering Delaware who have traveled to countries of concern
DPH also issued updated guidance to travelers returning from countries with a Level 2 or higher Travel Alert, now including Italy, Japan, Iran and South Korea. Any traveler who has visited those countries within the last 14 days is asked to contact the DPH at 1-888-295-5156 so they can issue them “coronavirus kits” (including information and a thermometer) and monitor their symptoms.
“We are asking these travelers to stay home and not work, not go to school, not attend public gatherings until that 14 days is over,” said Dr. Rattay.
Asked whether the DPH and public officials have discussed how the state would implement mass closures of schools if necessary, Dr. Rattay said the decision would be made by a few key individuals. “That would be based on really the level of risk but also the level of mitigation that a school closure would be expected to have. So, an example would be a community where there is widespread community infection. Working with the district in concert with us and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we would all weigh the pros and cons of closing schools or asking people to work from home or canceling large events.”
“Today, there are important things that Delawareans can do to stay healthy, to reduce the burden on the health care system, and to prepare if community transmission of coronavirus disease does happen in our state,” said Department of Health of Social Services (DHSS) Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker, a practicing family physician.
Advice to employers
In addition to guidance for individuals, Walker also encouraged Delaware employers to review their plans to operate with adaptations such as telework and flexible sick-leave policies, as well as how to respond if an employee does get sick.
“Most importantly, in the event of an outbreak locally, we will need employers to stress to employees that they not to come work when they are sick,” Secretary Walker said.
As of March 2, there are more than 89,000 cases of coronavirus disease worldwide, including more than 3,000 deaths. There are 43 cases and two deaths to date in the United States. Consistent with the CDC’s guidance, Dr. Rattay said community spread is likely to increase in the United States. “Our efforts, where before they were focused on containment of the disease, are now focused on mitigating the impact of it when it does occur.”
CDC officials also have said it is important for families and communities to prepare for what they would do if community spread occurs by recommending:
- Schools review their infection prevention and control plans in the event there is a local outbreak.
- Employers review their contingency plans to ensure they are able to operate with adaptations and respond if an employee gets sick.
- Individuals and families understand steps they can take to help slow the spread of illness, including avoiding travel to hard-hit areas and staying home when sick.
Delaware is experiencing a particularly serious flu season with more than 5,500 lab-confirmed cases and 11 deaths statewide, and in addition to getting a flu shot, DPH recommends everyday measures that people can take to prevent the spread of all infections, which would also slow the spread of coronavirus disease:
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hand. If you use a tissue, dispose of it right away.
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, including the backs of your hands and under your nails.
- Clean surfaces at home, work or school that you use often.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- If you are healthy, the CDC does not recommend buying or using face masks. If you are infected, however, a mask can help prevent the spread of a virus.
Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. The symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. Reported illnesses have ranged from people with little to no symptoms (similar to the common cold) to people being severely ill and dying.
For more information and updates related to COVID-19, visit the DPH website at de.gov/coronavirus, where materials can be found in English, Simplified Chinese/Mandarin, Spanish, and Haitian-Creole. In addition to updates on the global coronavirus disease outbreak, the website also contains tips for Delawareans, and the number of returning travelers that DPH is currently monitoring, which is updated twice each week on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The most accurate and timely information regarding this outbreak is available through the Division of Public Health, as well as the CDC’s website and social media channels.