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Utah leaders say they’re prepared for ‘worst-case scenario’ if coronavirus hits

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Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, listens as state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn talks about the risks of coronavirus during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Utah.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah health officials say they’ve coordinated an “extraordinary and unprecedented response” to the new coronavirus amid fears of an outbreak.

“Staff at Utah Department of Health alone have logged over 900 hours in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in the past three weeks,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, speaking about the virus during a news conference Friday at the state Capitol.

She said the state health department lab has become certified to test for the virus.

“This means that we’re going to be able to really identify, rule out or confirm cases here in Utah much more quickly, and we’re expecting this to come online in the next couple of weeks,” Dunn explained.

“Our message is that while Utah is not currently experiencing an outbreak, and we believe Utahns’ risk is actually low, we should all be cautious and diligent moving forward, but not yet overly concerned,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said.

Among efforts being made before the virus has even hit Utah, the Bureau of Emergency Medical Services is identifying potential shortages of medical assets like hospital beds and staff, according to Dunn.

“We in public health, at the state and national level, always prepare for the worst-case scenario, and that’s exactly what we’re doing in Utah. We are working with all of our health care providers to ensure that if that worst-case scenario happens, we have plans in place of where to put patients, how to get them the care they need, and how to prevent spread to other people,” Dunn said.

During the West Africa Ebola outbreak that started in 2014, the department identified hospitals that could treat the most ill patients. Should a coronavirus outbreak hit, Utah has the infrastructure in place to treat patients, she said. But as of now, officials believe any hospital can contain patients who are infectious.

When asked about the chances of a widespread outbreak — and what would happen should the virus spread quickly in Utah as it did in China, infecting thousands and forcing the quarantine of millions — Dunn emphasized that the U.S. has “a really strong public health infrastructure.”

Though one study claimed the virus can spread while a patient is asymptomatic — symptoms can take between two to 14 days to show up — Dunn said that study has been largely debunked.

“Hour by hour, we want Utahns to know that everything possible is being done to make sure that they stay healthy, and this virus does not infect people here in the state of Utah,” Cox said.

The new strain of coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, is related to the SARS and MERS viruses, and health officials believe it was first transmitted to humans from animals in a seafood market in Wuhan in the Hubei province of China. It has since been found to spread human to human.

“SARS had a mortality rate of 10%. (MERS) had a mortality rate of 30%. However, the numbers of cases of those outbreaks were much smaller than this outbreak. This outbreak has a mortality rate of 2%, but if you have enough people that are becoming infected, that’s still a very significant percent,” explained Dr. Joseph Miner, Utah Department of Health executive director.

He said should an outbreak hit Utah, measures taken with isolation and quarantine are effective in controlling such outbreaks.

The virus has infected more than 31,000 worldwide and killed nearly 640, the Associated Press reported Friday. The U.S. has seen 12 confirmed cases in six states.

Utah has screened 10 people suspected of having the coronavirus, according to Dunn — but no one in the state has tested positive. Results for two patients remained pending on Friday.

Public health workers in San Juan County say they are monitoring two travelers who recently returned to Utah’s southeastern corner from China.

Cases have been confirmed in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin.

Cox says state headquarters have gotten many phone calls and emails from concerned residents asking about the virus. He urged local health departments and doctors to work closely with the state health department to gather accurate information.

He said with the amount of new information about the virus coming in every day, there’s difficulty in disseminating it publicly across a largely rural state. He promised the state will update Utahns should there be a confirmed case of novel coronavirus.

“While the origin of this particular outbreak and virus can be traced back to China, it would be inappropriate, not to mention medically ineffective, to ostracise anyone from our communities, or exclude anyone from our places of public gathering, based on their race, nationality or ethnicity,” Cox said.

Utah-based Co-Diagnostics created a test for the virus that the company says expedites the process and provides accurate results. The company is working with the Food and Drug Administration to have the test cleared for use on an emergency basis, as the company says it has has received requests for the test from countries around the world.

To avoid getting the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges regular preventive steps that would protect against any respiratory virus.

The CDC is also urging people not to travel to China and not to use face masks, as health officials believe they don’t stop the virus’ spread. The agency also reminds people not to show prejudice toward people of Asian decent out of fear of the virus.

“Do not assume that someone of Asian descent is more likely to have 2019-nCoV. All persons in the U.S. — including those of Asian descent — who have not traveled to China or been in contact with someone with a confirmed or suspected nCoV case in the last 14 days are at low risk of becoming sick,” the CDC says.