Indy Star on 2/27/2020 by Shari Rudavsky
Indiana State Health Commissioner Kris Box has this message for Hoosiers worried about the prospect of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus: The state has been taking the necessary steps to prepare for this eventuality, using a blueprint drawn up for the prospect of a pandemic such as the influenza outbreak of 2009-2010.
“Simply put, we have done this before, and we are ready,” Box said at a Feb. 27 news conference.
Indiana health officials on March 6 announced the first confirmed case in the Hoosier state.
Hoosiers should be planning now for a potential outbreak here, Box said on Feb. 27, echoing earlier comments from federal health officials. Families should discuss how they would handle school and or business closures.
The health department has taken several steps, she said, including convening a statewide advisory committee. It has set up a 24/7 call center for people concerned that they may have one of the risk factors, such as a travel history to one of the heavily affected countries or contact with someone with such a history.
Each day sees new cases of the disease that has killed thousands, according to a tracking tool developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
Although influenza infects and kills far more people each year than COVID-19 has thus far, neither a vaccine against it nor a treatment for it yet exists, concerning health experts.
COVID-19 is the official name given to the new virus.
Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials painted a bleak picture of the future, saying it was not so much a matter of if but when and where the disease takes hold in the U.S.
Gauging how well prepared Indiana is for coronavirus
Some experts say not all states will be equally prepared to weather an outbreak.
A 2020 report from the Trust for America’s Health placed Indiana in the lowest of three tiers when it comes to the ability to protect public health in an emergency.
Box said Feb. 27 that she feels confident Indiana is in good shape.
“We are very supported in this and not feeling that we are lacking any funds to address this issue,” she said.
Although Indiana saw its public health funding rise 5% from 2018 to 2019, according to the report, other reports have noted that the state ranks as low as 49th when it comes to public health funds.
That could make a difference should an outbreak occur here, said Dr. Virgina Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department.
“Resources are important for us to be robust in terms of how we respond to things,” she said. “Right now we’re fine, but if we had a major crisis or a major number of cases, I might be concerned that we may not have enough protective equipment, surgical masks, things of that nature, where our stockpile we might want to have be a little bit larger.”
Indiana health officials train for such outbreaks
Although Indiana may lack monetary assets, its intellectual ones are strong when it comes to public health, Caine said.
The county health departments and state health department communicate well in terms of pandemic planning and have multiple staffers on the ground with expertise in responding to outbreaks. Health officials also conduct annual simulations of how to respond to public health emergencies.
“We exercise every year so we just don’t have the plans on the shelf,” she said.
Some of that experience could prove critical in the event of an outbreak.
Hospitals, health officials, and emergency responders have systems at the state level that allow for the tracking of essential resources such as critical care access beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment for health care providers, Box said.
At the Marion County level, local health officials and hospital administrators have been meeting regularly to talk about coronavirus as well as influenza, said Melissa McMasters, administrator of immunization and infectious disease programs for the Marion County Public Health Department.
Recently hospitals have started asking about any international travel for patients with respiratory symptoms, she said. Those who respond in the affirmative are asked to put on a mask and can expect to be isolated.
Each week the health department ensures that facilities have both the resources they need, such as masks and sufficient intensive care unit beds, McMasters said.
Testing Hoosiers for coronavirus
Health officials said the first confirmed case in Indiana is an adult from Marion County who traveled to Boston where he attended an event, officials said during a news conference March 6.
He is being isolated outside the hospital and is in stable condition and does not require hospitalization.
State and local health officials said last month that they sent three samples for testing from people who had symptoms consistent with the virus and a travel history to China or contact with someone with such a history. None came back positive.
In keeping with CDC guidelines, state and local health officials have monitored 60 individuals with a history of travel to China in recent weeks. Of those, 26 people were in voluntary quarantine in their homes as of Feb. 27.
Should someone test positive for a mild case of COVID-19, health officials would ask that person to remain in his or her home until he or she tests negative for the disease two days in a row, Box said.
Until now the state has relied on the CDC to do any testing, but Box said the health department laboratory could have its own test kits in hand by the end of the week.
Health officials keep referring to COVID-19 as a “rapidly evolving situation.”
With the H1N1 pandemic, much of the planning in the early stages revolved around the knowledge and hope that a vaccine was on the horizon, McMasters said. From the earliest days of planning, health officials devoted a lot of time to deciding how to prioritize who would receive the vaccine.
“With this, there’s no real intervention,” she said. “There’s messaging and preparing people for what might not be their normal.”
For now, health officials are encouraging people to follow the most basic hygiene rules associated with the flu. Wash your hands thoroughly and often, cover your cough, and if you get sick, stay home.
The immediate risk of developing COVID-19 is low for most Americans at this point, Box said Feb. 27.
“Is this time to panic?” she said. “No, it’s time to plan.”