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How Denver has prepared for a possible coronavirus outbreak

Procedures are in place in the event of an in infectious disease outbreak, local health officials said.

DENVER — Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. appears inevitable.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC's director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said the virus, called COVID-19 "rapidly evolving and spreading" and said that as more countries experience the spread of the coronavirus, "successful containment at U.S. borders is becoming problematic." 

On Wednesday, Bob McDonald, the executive director of Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE), answered questions about how Denver has prepared for potential disease outbreaks.

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(Editor's note: Responses have been edited for context and clarity.)

9NEWS: What can you tell us about what Denver is doing amid talks of a potential outbreak of COVID-19?

McDonald: Denver has always had an emergency plan in place should an infectious disease enter into our community. We have quarantine [and] isolation protocols in place. 

We have communications in place to reach out to employers [and] schools to provide guidance should coronavirus infection enter into their facilities. We work very closely with the state health department, our partners at Denver Public Health and Denver Health and hospital authority and many other local public health departments to be prepared for this. 

We are prepared to give guidance to employers on how they can control it within a work setting. In terms of being prepared for infectious disease in Denver, that’s been in place for quite some time.

Can you talk about what a quarantine might look like in Denver?

McDonald: There could be a number of forms of quarantine. It could be a person who is actively infectious or ill, it might be quarantine within a hospital setting.

We routinely have quarantined people by issuing orders from this department who may have been exposed but are not yet symptomatic.

We suspect that they could become symptomatic, and we want to isolate them so that they don’t spread it if they do become infectious. So, there are a number of ways in which quarantines can be implemented.

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We asked a similar question of Michelle Barron, the medical director of infection prevention at UC Health, about what social isolation would look like:

Most of it would probably involve limiting big public gatherings, so if a Phish concert was happening, perhaps that would be asked to be canceled. So, a lot of it is what we call social distancing where you just don’t have hundreds of people or thousands of people en masse, in close proximity to each other.

What are some fears or concerns among community members that you'd like to address?

McDonald: It’s important to keep things in perspective. We need to prepare for this. I agree with the CDC that it’s just a matter of time before it comes here, but there are a number of viral illnesses that originate not in other countries that have also come to the U.S.

We should make it clear and the public should be clear that coronaviruses themselves are not new. Coronaviruses can cause a number of respiratory illnesses, including the common cold.

This one is unique in that there’s not as much known about it. It's a new strain, but the controls to keep the spread of it are no different than what the general public or healthcare workers would implement to keep themselves from contracting a cold virus or influenza.

With DIA being such a busy airport how are you addressing the potential spread of the disease through travel? 

McDonald:  Working with our partners at DEN is a major piece of controlling the spread in Denver. We work closely with them to monitor who is coming in from other parts of the world, particularly where we have seen more spread in other countries including China but we have protocols in place.

We’re ready for that if that happens here. I don’t think it elevates us or puts us more at risk than anyplace else. I think we have the protocols in place to deal with that when it comes here.  

What would you tell people who are afraid to travel due to the virus?

McDonald: I would say to those that are considering traveling to areas where we have seen the spread of coronavirus, travel, follow through with your plans. The precautions that travelers need to implement are the same that they need to implement to avoid contracting the common cold during travel or influenza.

I know that there’s a lot of concern over this and that’s because it’s new. We need to give it its due attention and be prepared for it but keep this in perspective. Tens of thousands of people die from influenza in the united states every year and still, we struggle with getting people vaccinated for influenza. This is a different type of virus that causes the same symptoms, the precautions are the same.

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Are facemasks helpful or recommended?

McDonald: No. People should wear facemasks when they strongly suspect that they have been exposed to coronavirus and they are experiencing symptoms. 

They should call their primary care physician before going to the office to get instructions on how to prepare to go to the office for treatment. 

It’s not advised that the general public start walking around with facemasks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

How can people be prepared for a possible outbreak?

McDonald: Stay informed. There’s a lot of great information being put out at the local, state and federal level from the CDC.

Stay attuned to what that guidance is and then again, follow through with the basic precautions and be aware that if you’ve come in contact with someone that has been traveling to areas where it’s more prevalent, then be very very diligent with following up with a primary care physician to talk about what precautions happen now and sometimes that might include being isolated for a while to make sure that if a person does become infectious, we keep it managed.

How does DIA handle travelers coming into the US that could be infected?

McDonald: The airport does have a screening protocol, that’s a part of their emergency management system. So, the average traveler may not know about that but it is there. The emergency staff out at DEN is well aware of this and all over it to make sure that we’re controlling it.

If it's similar to the flu in terms of precautions, why is there an elevated response?

McDonald: I think the reason you’re seeing it elevated somewhat is because there’s still some things that are unknown with novel coronavirus because it’s new.

Researchers are looking at that, the CDC is looking into it. So, there are still some unknowns, but what we do know right now is exactly what I said, there are a lot of comparisons to other types of viral illnesses, so the protocols for controlling it are the same.

We need to stay diligent and continue to learn about it in case new information becomes available that makes it much more serious than the organisms that I’ve mentioned already. 

What is the likelihood that someone who's infected will recover?

McDonald: The mortality rate for this is slightly higher than influenza at this point, but it’s very similar in that those people who are unfortunately passing from this virus are people that are often immune-compromised already with some type of respiratory illness and then older individuals that are, again, because of their age, somewhat immune-compromised. 

When you look at the average healthy adult in the prime of their life, it’s very similar to what you experience with influenza and other types of respiratory illnesses. 

So, the mortality rate is not much higher right now. We’re seeing the same people that have the most severe impacts. It’s the same community where we see the most severe impacts with influenza.

When you say there is a procedure in place if there is an outbreak, have we ever had to employ those? 

We’ve employed emergency protocols for other situations. The city of Denver has a very robust emergency procedure plan for a wide range of things, we practice to be prepared for that. We have implemented phases of protocols when we have suspected that there might be an infectious disease coming in on a flight or bus to Denver, but we have been able to keep that under control and asses it quickly to make sure it doesn’t spread so were prepared.

Bottom line here in Denver, should we be worried?

I think we should be informed, be aware, and practice basic hygienic practices that we promote every day in this department and in all public health departments -- wash your hands, be aware of your surroundings, if you’re around people that are coughing and sneezing, distance yourself. Don’t go into work sick, many people don’t want to use vacation leave or don’t have vacation leave and its very important in controlling this and other illnesses to stay at home. Contact your primary care physician and get some guidance on when its safe to return to work. With coronavirus, the infectious period is highest when you’re most sick but it doesn’t completely dissipate when the symptoms are gone.

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