Yesterday, March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) publicly characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic for the first time. In the past two weeks, the number of cases outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled.
WHO reported yesterday that there are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives, while thousands more are hospitalized and fighting for their lives.
“We are deeply concerned, both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO officials stated. “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”
The first known case of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States was reported in Washington state in late January. Since that report, the number of cases in the United States has grown rapidly. As of Wednesday, The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting 938 cases, and 26 deaths, across 39 states in this country. The Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed at least 32 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, 11 identified at a federal quarantine site at Lackland Air Force Base and 21 elsewhere. The latest cases were confirmed in Collin, Dallas, Gregg, Montgomery, and Tarrant counties.
The United States, to date, has reported drastically fewer cases than other developed nations, fueling skepticism over the numbers reported by federal outlets and stoking criticism over its sluggish response to the virus. The exact number of cases in the country has been difficult to accurately report due to the lack of screening tests needed to identify them.
To decelerate the spread, health officials are advocating for an increase in public screening. Medicare Part B now covers a screening test, which must be ordered by a doctor or other healthcare provider. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Department of Insurance are requesting that insurers and health maintenance organizations that do business in Texas waive new coronavirus diagnosis-related costs, such as testing and telemedicine visits.
Additionally, TDI is requesting that insurers report their actions related to consumer cost-sharing and access to services, so that the department can ensure consumers are aware of their available benefits.
“Consulting a physician from home is a practical way to avoid getting sick, prevent the spread of the virus, and help ensure that emergency rooms are available for those who truly need them,” Gov. Abbott said. “We appreciate the collaboration of health insurers operating in Texas to enhance our state’s proactive approach to addressing any potential outbreaks of COVID-19. The state of Texas is unwavering in our commitment to protecting the health and safety of all Texans.”
Until now, the number of COVID-19 screening tests administered in the United States has been dramatically lower than the quantities other developed nations have administered. The low number of tests administered is a direct result of a slow response by the CDC at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, as well as an error in the initial screening test kits. It is believed the initial test kits contained a defective chemical and needed to be remanufactured, resulting in a shortage of test kits in the United States. The lack of accurate tests available and strict CDC screening guidelines meant, at the onset of the outbreak, few diagnostic tests were administered. Because only a small amount of potential carriers received testing, the number of people actually infected with the disease around the country is expected to be much higher than is currently reported, and those who carry the virus unknowingly are likely to continue to spread COVID-19 as they proceed through their daily lives.
The number of cases is expected to grow exponentially in this country, as test kits become more available and additional patients are diagnosed. “Millions of much-needed testing kits for COVID-19 are on the way to clinics and labs nationwide,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters during a White House briefing Monday evening. Pence, who heads the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, said testing is now available in all state labs in every state in the country. “Over a million tests have been distributed,” Pence said, and “before the end of this week, another 4 million tests will be distributed.”
Furthermore, in the private sector, major medical-testing companies, such as LabCorp and Quest, have also “brought a test forward and are taking that to market, effective today,” Pence said. He added that, “with the deployment of the commercial labs, we literally are going to see a dramatic increase in the availability of testing.”
Local School and Health Officials Prepare Plans of Action
While federal officials grapple with the rapid outbreak, officials in this community have begun outlining plans of action.
Rhonda McKanna, RN, who serves as infection control nurse at Hemphill County Hospital, emphasized “The risk remains low—there are currently no cases in this town.” McKanna also explained the hospital has a procedure in place to handle any suspected COVID-19 cases in Hemphill County.
“If you suspect you meet the current CDC criteria and may have COVID-19,” McKanna said, “call ahead and explain your situation. When you arrive, call from the parking lot, stay in your vehicle, and staff will come out to you. This prevents the waiting room from being exposed and allows our staff to bring you into an isolated area to assess you. Hemphill County Hospital is then able to collect samples and send them to a state designated testing point.”
Hemphill County Hospital will submit samples from suspected cases to the Texas Tech University Bioterrorism Response Laboratory in Lubbock, she explained, which is one of 10 sites statewide capable of testing suspected COVID-19 samples and is currently conducting testing for 67 Panhandle counties. “The turnaround time for test results is about 24 hours,” said McKanna.
Canadian Independent School District released a statement to students and parents on Friday, March 6, assuring parents that the level of risk to the community is low at this time. In an abundance of caution and preparedness, Canadian ISD and school nurse Molly Kerrigan RN, BSN, are in the process of outlining a coronavirus plan. While still in development, the plan will cover prevention, as well as a plan of action if a student tests positive, or if COVID-19 is identified in the community.
In the meantime, according to Friday’s statement, Canadian ISD is utilizing the procedures recommended by the CDC.
The school advised, based on the current information, health officials are recommending local communities and schools should take the same steps to protect against coronavirus as we take to prevent the spread of everyday illnesses like the common cold or the flu:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Cover your mouth and nose with the inside of your elbow when you cough or sneeze.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, the prospect of school closures due to coronavirus was raised. If COVID-19 were to be identified in the community, CISD Superintendent Lynn Pulliam clearly stated, “If we had somebody test positive, without a doubt, we would close schools, even if it got relatively close to our area.”
In the event of a school closure, remote learning and alternate e-learning could offer a solution; if school closure became a reality, remote learning would allow for students to continue lessons from their homes. Pulliam explained CISD was currently in the process of developing remote-learning plans. “We could utilize one-to-one technology for grades six-12 and have students do lessons at home,” said Pulliam. For lower grades, he said the school is prepared to make copies of lessons to send home with students.
Corona vs. Flu: How are they different?
Coronavirus symptoms are very similar to seasonal flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing. Similar to respiratory illnesses like the flu, coronavirus spreads from person-to-person contact, such as coughing, sneezing or touching infected surfaces, according to the CDC. Symptoms become prevalent within six-14 days of contracting the disease. Severe cases of the virus can lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and kidney failure.
Early reports indicate that coronavirus appears to be more contagious and have a higher fatality rate than the flu. COVID-19 can be deadly for a small percentage of the population, such as elderly or those with chronic health issues, according to the World Health Organization. Unlike the flu, there is no vaccine available to prevent or reduce cases of coronavirus.