Pierce County and the Coronavirus

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No cases yet, but health authorities advise taking steps to stay healthy

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

One of the biggest news stories to hit so far is 2020 is the outbreak of the coronavirus – also known as COVID-19. Among the daily press updates and stories on the national news, Washington State has been a focus. On Monday, March 2, health officials here announced that four more people died of the virus, bringing the state’s death toll to six – five from King County and one from Snohomish County. Our state has the highest number of deaths in the country, with nine nationwide.

Oregon reported its first case of COVID-19 last week, and now dozens of employees at Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, where the patient sought treatment, have been quarantined, as reported this week in The Oregonian. The total number of states with confirmed cases now stands at 18.

So far, Pierce County has been spared of any infections but travelers from impacted areas like China continue to be monitored and none of them has symptoms. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) is not recommending canceling public gatherings, but Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards took extreme caution for her March 4 State of the City Address by changing it from a public event at Mt. Tahoma High School to a virtual address format aired on TV Tacoma and social media. 

“Although there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pierce County, the health and safety of our community is our top priority,” she said. “That’s why I’ve decided to embrace a virtual format this year that is consistent with one of the suggested preventive measures being used by City administration.” 

TPCHDis enhancing its plans to help limit the spread of the disease if any cases are detected in Pierce County, following new guidance from the State Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Pierce County residents’ risk of COVID-19 infection is still low but has increased as the virus spreads in Western Washington.

“We don’t yet have a confirmed case here, but that may change as our region sees more positive cases,” Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department states in their latest news release. “Diseases don’t observe county boundaries, and it’s likely we will see positive cases from the close contacts of cases in neighboring counties.”

The department is working with the State Public Laboratory to test people in Pierce County who meet the CDC’s testing criteria and will share with the public if a positive case occurs. People can’t ask for tests if they don’t meet the criteria, and the Health Department does not provide testing.

People in Pierce County who are at elevated risk of exposure include healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients, people who have had close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients and travelers who just returned from China, Japan, Iran or Italy. 

If our area experiences spread of COVID-19, TPCHD will notify the public if it becomes advisable to cancel public gatherings, keep people home from work and/or close schools. The department isn’trecommending those strategies at this time, but if that changes, the department will quickly tell the public, businesses and other government agencies.

CBS news has most recently reported that worldwide, coronavirus has hit at least 70 countries, with 90,000 cases and 3,100 deaths. China has been hit hardest and although new cases have declined there, the virus continues to spread in South Korea, Iran and Italy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said that it would still be a year to a year and a half before a vaccine could be made available to the public.

While coronavirus has affected people individually, it has taken a toll on the populace at large as well. Schools and post offices have closed for deep cleaning, events have been cancelled and museums and theme parks have closed, for example.

This is the case across the country. Twitter staff members were asked to work from home starting March 2 to help stop the disease spread. Working from home is also mandatory for Twitter employees in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan and all “non-critical” business travel has been suspended. The National Basketball Association has advised players to avoid giving fans high-fives and to not accept pens, balls and jerseys to sign. According to the Associated Press, Portland Trailblazers guard CJ McCallum said he is, “officially taking a break from signing autographs until further notice.”

What you can do 

First, you should stay calm. Internationally, 80 percent of infections appear to be mild. This virus spreads by breathing in small particles caused by coughing or sneezing, like the flu (influenza), so it’s important to wash your hands and stay away from people who are sick. But, unlike the flu, this virus is new and we don’t have a vaccine yet. This means our bodies have less existing immunity to protect us and it is more important than ever to stay home when you are sick and limit contact with other sick individuals. 

You do need to take specific actions now to help keep your family safe:

  • Wash your hands! Do so often. Use soap and water for at least 20 seconds. 
  • Avoid touching your face, especially with unwashed hands. Your eyes, nose, and mouth are open doors for germs. 
  • Avoid people who are sick. Steer clear of illnesses if at all possible.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Hold a tissue over your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Then throw that tissue away and, again, WASH YOUR HANDS! 
  • Clean things. Disinfect objects and surfaces often.
  • Stay home if you’re sick. This isn’t the time to tough it out and leave your home if you’re not feeling well.
  • Call first. If you or a family member are sick and plan to seek care, call first. Healthcare sites need to prepare for people who are showing symptoms – or direct you to the appropriate resource. 
  • Stay informed. Follow and share trusted sources of accurate public health information. The TPCHD website is a great place to start: www.tpchd.org/coronavirus.

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