COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - With the coronavirus pandemic spreading, national health officials are recommending people wash hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer, disinfect all frequently-touched surfaces, and use tissues to cover your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze.

Coronavirus: What it is, how to stay safe, and how the growing pandemic is being handled locally

THREE RIVERS — Over the last several days, fears and concerns about COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, have escalated dramatically in Michigan, and around the country.

According to the World Health Organization, as of Friday, 132,000 cases worldwide have been reported from 123 countries with over 5,000 deaths. In the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control, over 1,600 cases have been confirmed in 46 states, with 41 deaths.

On Friday at press time, it was announced there were a total of 16 cases of the coronavirus in Michigan, with one west Michigan case reported in Kent County. On Friday, President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency to combat the virus.

According to the CDC, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many different species of animals, including bats and cattle. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a novel, or new, coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

Symptoms of the disease are fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and may appear two to 14 days after exposure, based on what the CDC has seen previously in similar outbreaks.

Health experts are still learning details about how the coronavirus spreads, but other similar viruses are spread through the air, close personal contact, and contact with an infected object and touching mouth, nose and eyes.

Dr. Otavio Pereira Rodrigues, an infectious disease specialist at Three Rivers Health, said there has been no local transmission in the area, but older adults and people with chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and lung disease have a higher risk of getting sick from the coronavirus.

Rodrigues said it has been “hard to give a number” on the overall risk for the public because it is a situation that is “progressing.” However, he stressed that the coronavirus is not just another type of flu.

“There’s two problems with that: One, this spreads more easily than the flu does, which makes it more difficult to contain it,” Rodrigues said. “The flu usually has a behavior where the numbers drop when the temperature increases. We don’t know that yet about the coronavirus. This has a different behavior. We don’t know how much we can contain it, so it is different.”

Rodrigues added that there is a “wide range” of numbers when it comes to the mortality rate for the virus, but said the coronavirus is around 10 times more deadly than the flu, partly because there are no medications specifically approved for this virus at the moment.

“So, you’re combining two things with this: A disease that spreads easily with a high mortality, so it’s not just like the flu,” Rodrigues said.

To prevent illness, Rodrigues said people should practice social isolation and social distancing, avoid travel to locations where there is a higher number of incidents, and wash their hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer. Additionally, the CDC advises people to stay home if you are sick, except to get medical care, and clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces daily.

If you do get sick with the coronavirus or suspect you are sick, both Rodrigues and the CDC advised them to isolate themselves at home and call ahead before visiting a doctor and seek medical attention promptly if their illness worsens. TRH CEO Dave Shannon said there is a special phone number patients can call if they suspect they have coronavirus and need to get treatment: (269) 273-9801.

“We’re going to ask people if they’re coming in and they think they have COVID-19, we’ll ask them to go back in their cars and call the number so we can address it in their car,” Shannon said. “If they don’t have a cell phone, we’ll deal with them as they come in.”

Rodrigues said Three Rivers Health is working closely with the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency to prepare for any potential increase in cases in this area. They are also putting limitations on visitors, announcing Thursday that visitors must be 12 years old or older, that emergency room visitors will be limited to two visitors per patient, and OB visitors must be immediate family.

“We’ll also be posting signs in all the entry areas of the hospital so people are aware, if they have symptoms, they should inform us, wear a mask, and our professionals will take care of them,” Rodrigues said.

The issue of the amount of coronavirus tests has been a hot-button issue, but Shannon said they “have a few” tests available at the moment. Rodrigues said most of the tests have recently been done by private and state laboratories.

The spread of the coronavirus pandemic has caused many institutions and businesses locally and nationally to alter plans and cancel or postpone events in the wake of an executive order from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that went into effect Friday afternoon to cancel all events and gatherings of more than 250 people. A full list of event changes, cancellations and postponements can be viewed on Page 2 in Saturday's edition of the Commercial-News or online for free without a TRCN subscription at www.threeriversnews.com.

Many people have criticized the sudden burst of cancellations, calling them “overreactions.” Rodrigues said these kind of measures are actually appropriate, given the situation.

“It doesn’t seem to be [an overreaction], because we know about the experiences of other countries,” Rodrigues said. “We know what happens when you delay those interventions, and that’s essentially what happened in China. We’re attempting to make an intervention to reduce those numbers, so we don’t have to do anything more drastic in the future. These cancellations seem to be appropriate, because we do see the numbers increasing rapidly.”

Shannon said the measures are also being taken to “flatten the curve,” meaning reducing large spikes in cases to help with supplies available at hospitals.

“These figures could change in minutes,” Shannon said. “You have to keep your eye on the ball at all times, and we’re lucky to have Dr. Rodrigues, and he’s been on top of this since the beginning.”

Overall, Rodrigues said he wasn’t sure how long the virus will last, but said the biggest pieces of advice he could give people is to practice the same preventative measures that people would with the flu.

“Wash your hands, avoid any unnecessary contact, avoid going to crowded places, and find a source of information that’s reliable,” Rodrigues said. “There’s a lot of questions, but we know info from the CDC and [the National Institute of Health] are usually reliable, and we at the hospital will keep people up to date as well.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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