Since last week, when health officials warned that Americans should prepare for the inevitable spread of the coronavirus here in the U.S., at least 12 Americans have died and new cases have been emerging almost daily.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that Americans should be prepared for the spread of the virus in local communities, as well as the possible disruptions to daily life it could cause, such as school and daycare closings.
So how is Charlottesville preparing?
While the risk in Virginia “is still low” (there have not yet been any confirmed cases in the state), the Thomas Jefferson Health District is monitoring the situation and is prepared for any potential outbreak, says Jessica Salah, TJHD’s health emergency coordinator.
“We have been working with our central office since 2004 for pandemic influenza. We regularly meet with our community partners, local service providers, and health care partners to plan how we handle pandemic flu,” Salah says. “If you take pandemic flu out of the equation and insert a different communicable disease, the planning process and preparedness is very similar.”
At UVA Health System, spokesman Eric Swensen says the system also “has a team in place that meets regularly…and makes updates to our plan as we need to,” based on guidance from the CDC and Virginia Department of Health.
According to Dr. William Petri, chief of UVA’s Infectious Diseases and International Health division, UVA hospital has numerous isolation rooms available for those infected with contagious diseases like COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus). It also has plenty of face masks on hand, since the virus is primarily spread by coughing and sneezing (or by touching a contaminated surface).
“And if a physician needs to go into isolation for 14 days because they potentially may have COVID-19 or are being treated for COVID-19…we are establishing a backup system, so that there’s another physician that can take their place, and we don’t get shorthanded,” Petri says.
Petri, along with UVA virologist Peter Kasson, is currently applying for a research grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Though the grant could take months to be awarded, he believes that, with support from UVA, they should be able to start working on the vaccine soon. And with pharmaceutical companies like Gilead Sciences already conducting clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines, there could be a treatment available within a year, Petri predicts.
Meanwhile, the university itself is also making plans. Since January, “a UVA team has been meeting regularly to prepare for the potential impacts of [COVID-19] on the university,” according to an update issued to parents by Patricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer. The university has made arrangements to quarantine potentially infected students, if necessary.
UVA has not canceled any of its study abroad programs, but says it will do so if any countries where it is hosting programs receive Level 3 warnings or higher from the State Department. (Currently, China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy have such warnings, and UVA is not hosting any programs there this semester.) The university also strongly recommends students not travel to these countries during the upcoming spring break.
According to UVA spokesman Brian Coy, there is a small group of students studying abroad in Italy with a non-UVA program. The university has advised those students to return to the United States, where they may undergo screening for the virus.
Student travel organization WorldStrides, which has its headquarters in Charlottesville, has canceled or relocated programs scheduled for China, South Korea, and Italy this spring, but there are currently no students in those countries, according to Beth Campbell, vice president of content and communications.
Though TJHD recommends Charlottesville residents stay updated on the COVID-19 outbreak, it ultimately encourages them not to panic, and take simple precautions to keep themselves (and others) healthy, Salah says.
“Monitor CDC travel recommendations and avoid nonessential travel to [Level 3 countries],” Salah says. “We are also recommending that folks older than 65 get the pneumonia vaccine, and that everybody over the age of 6 months get the flu vaccine.”
TJHD does not recommend buying a face mask, but, as with every cold and flu season, advises people to wash their hands regularly, minimize touching their face and commonly used surfaces (like railings and door knobs), and stay home when sick.
“And if you suspect you might have [COVID-19]—and the biggest reason to suspect that is that you have been to a country where COVID-19 is spreading person-to-person, and now have a fever, cough, and shortness of breath—call in first,” Petri adds. “Don’t just walk into the emergency room or doctor’s office, because then you run the risk of spreading the infection to other people.”
Charlottesville City Schools’ page on coronavirus: charlottesvilleschools.org/coronavirus/
Updates from UVA Health: uvahealth.com/services/infectious-disease/coronavirus-faqs
Updated 3/4 and 3/5 to reflect the increasing number of American deaths. As of 3/10 there are now five confirmed cases in Virginia, more than 720 in the U.S., and 26 deaths.