As cases of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, continue to be confirmed in areas closer and closer to Alabama, state and local officials are working to educate the public and prepare for how to prevent the spread of the virus if cases start to appear locally.
Over the past few days, concerns about COVID-19 have spiked, as the first deaths in the U.S. attributed to the virus were reported in Washington state and the number of states with confirmed cases has nearly doubled. Most recently, Georgia and Florida both announced presumptive COVID-19 cases within their borders.
A previously unknown viral infection, COVID-19 has similar symptoms to the common cold but can cause more severe complications in others, similar to Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronaviruses. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Those could appear at any time during the incubation period, which is currently estimated to be somewhere between two to 14 days.
At the moment, there are no confirmed cases in the state, but the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) is still making sure public agencies, hospitals and the general public are prepared if that changes.
“Right now, we feel comfortable saying that there is not a high risk for people who live in Alabama, but we’ll continue to monitor, as these situations can change quickly,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said during a press conference Monday. “The disease is not widely circulating in the U.S at this time, though there has been some community transmission on the West Coast and in the Northeast.”
Right now, officials at all levels are repeating a simple mantra to the public: Wash your hands, cover your cough, stay at home if you’re sick and self-quarantine if you think you may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Outside of China, where the disease originated, the World Health Organization has identified South Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan as their areas of “greatest concern” due to the rapid spread there.
Dr. Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist with the Mobile County Health Department, told Lagniappe as the number of countries with large person-to-person cases grows, it becomes less feasible for the government to test and quarantine individuals who might be infected as they return home from international travel. As such, Murphree said it’s important for individuals to do what they can to prevent the spread of the infection.
“We’re already seeing several schools and businesses encouraging workers and students to come back from those countries if they’re there,” Murphree said. “We have to rely on everyone returning from those countries to recognize they have a responsibility to protect the community by staying home and monitoring themselves.”
Earlier this week, Spring Hill College announced that students studying on its campus in Italy would start returning to Mobile this week. As Murphree suggested, the administration sent a letter to those students and their families advising them to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended, 14-day self-quarantine. It also asked them to remain off-campus during those two weeks, as well.
According to ADPH, anyone returning from those significantly affected areas who believes they’re exhibiting symptoms should avoid contact with others and seek medical care immediately, though officials have encouraged calling ahead so safe transportation options can be arranged.
After a delay caused all tests for COVID-19 to be run through the CDC, state officials are beginning to do their own testing as of this week. Murphree noted officials are only testing people who’ve been exposed to someone with a diagnosed case of COVID-19, at this time. Others who believe they have come into contact with the virus or who have traveled to impacted areas are being asked to self-monitor first.
As health officials continue to disseminate information and test for possible cases, city officials in Mobile are doing what they can to prevent the virus from entering the city through its port. Joeseph Snowden, senior director of maritime and transpiration and retired Coast Guard captain, has led that effort.
When cases of COVID-19 began to spread outside of mainland China, Snowden began working with various stakeholders on ways to monitor, prevent and respond to the spread of any infectious disease or virus among passengers on the Carnival cruise line or the shipping vessels that call on Mobile’s port.
“As far as prevention, the terminal here disinfects before and after every cruise, and the ship itself also practices disinfection throughout trips,” Snowden said. “Medical staff also review passengers’ questionnaires, and if they’ve been to any affected areas, they’re denied entry to the ship. Carnival also has full-time medical staff, so patients can be treated and quarantined on board.”
Despite having an active port, Snowden said one of the safeguards against infectious viruses is the use of bar pilots. Because of this, all ships are stopped before they actually enter the port, and the Coast Guard requires all vessels to disclose any sick persons on board. If someone on board is suspected of having COVID-19, Snowden said ships will be kept at sea until the patient or patients can be transported for treatment by the Coast Guard.
In preparation for that or any similar contact with infected persons, Snowden said the city has already made sure CDC-approved protective gear is available for the city’s maritime employees, local health officials, bar pilots and even certain employees at the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico.
“What’s on our side, from a maritime perspective, is that a large ship doesn’t get into Mobile without us knowing about it,” Snowden said. “Ships coming from some of the most impacted areas in Europe and Asia also come through the Panama Canal. So, we have like a 45-day window for someone that might be infected to develop symptoms before they arrive at the Port of Mobile.”
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