ST. GEORGE — With cases of the new coronavirus COVID-19 being reported each day, St. George city officials are being joined by neighboring counterparts, including county health care officials and other first responders seeking to alleviate fears and speak with one voice on a growing viral outbreak.
In a meeting held Monday, Washington County emergency service officials, municipalities, law enforcement, public health, school district representatives and others met to craft one voice, one message, and present information that would not fan the flames of fears of what could become a larger viral outbreak.
“We are trying to implement the best practices as outlined by the Utah Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” said David Cordero, director of communications and marketing for the city of St. George.
“We want to make sure we are not confusing people but giving them the facts and the right advice. By doing this it will help us minimize the spread of the disease as far as city employees and how we interact with the public.”
The reason for Monday’s meeting, Cordero added, is to provide the best information available about COVID-19.
“We don’t want our residents to be led astray,” he said.
Following past viral scares such as Ebola and the swine flu, local health responders are well trained to adapt to the changing conditions locally, but it is always best to have a refresher course that allows city officials to be more responsive to ensure public safety, Cordero added.
Common-sense actions like washing your hands, covering your face if you cough or sneeze and using sanitizing wipes or lotions in moderation play an important role in limiting the spread of any viral infection.
But there are warnings of going too far.
Using hand sanitizers may actually lower resistance to diseases by killing good bacteria, which helps protect against bad bacteria.
“We want people to do things that make sense to increase their odds of staying healthy,” Cordero said.
Although the U.S. is behind the growing number of infection rates seen in the hard-hit Italy since February, America is tracking a similar growth rate.
Italy announced Monday that tourist attractions, community events and nearly all travel throughout the entire country would be limited or canceled.
When asked the possibility of similar actions taken in Southern Utah, Cordero said there are no easy answers.
“There are a lot of hypotheticals there,” he said. “We have to monitor the spread of the disease and take our cues from what is happening globally, along with statewide and locally.”
The focus needs to be drilled down on facts and not rumor, innuendo or disinformation, Cordero added.
“If things escalate we will have to address it in some way or another,” he said. “Right now this is something we will take a common-sense approach and not to be hasty in our decision-making process.”
The question now facing city officials is whether to hold community events or cancel them as other communities across the country are making.
During the midst of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Philadelphia decided to hold a citywide parade, and the death rate from flu subsequently spiked to more than 250,000 by October.
In contrast, St. Louis, which canceled public events and took proactive measures to fight the spread of the disease had its spike of deaths in December 1918 reaching approximately 50,000 that month.
Health care officials say decisions about what to do will come down to the local level actions.
St. George Fire Department Battalion Chief Darren Imlay told St. George News he is concerned but optimistic.
“There are already plans in place with a bigger event,” Imlay said. “Everyone has practiced protocols that if this turns into a bigger event we are able to handle it.”
To date, Imlay said no one in Washington County has tested positive for the new coronavirus.
“The difference between the coronavirus and the (annual) flu goes along with the publicity and the reaction people are having,” he said. “Not to minimize the seriousness (but) we have a really low probability right now.”
Imlay believes there is a lot of panic where there is no need to panic and said that that combating illnesses such as swine flu, Ebola and MERS, which sparked national attention when they hit, is best handled at the local and county level.
“Locally we practice our response yearly,” Imlay said. “Many of the required supplies and logistics are already in place.”
Although coronavirus test kits are only starting to arrive in states affected, Imlay added that because of the annual drills for other diseases, Southern Utah is in a good place.
“When you talk preparedness, it starts from the first person,” Imlay said. “As a person, what can you do to limit potential exposure or limit the spread? The first line of defense is to wash your hands. That’s for sure.”
Imlay said if St. George sees its first cases of coronavirus, the next step is perhaps for businesses to have their employees disinfect doorknobs, toilet seats and other public contacted surfaces more frequently.
“You need to go beyond what you normally do to protect against exposure,” he said. “For us in Southern Utah and the dry heat, it may be like the (common) flu and go away in the summer. There is a real chance it doesn’t come back, but I realize that people are nervous.”
People have the right to be concerned, he added.
Deaths across the U.S. are on the rise, Nasdaq Stock Market rates have plummeted, four members of Congress have quarantined themselves because of exposure to others who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and events across the country have been canceled.
“I don’t know how you fight this,” Imlay said. “I am not going on a cruise ship anytime soon, but I would not be afraid to visit a national park, especially later in the summer.”
Although more than 80% of people infected with the coronavirus do not know they have the disease, the latest numbers set the figure at more than 650 in the United States infected, with more than 20 deaths.
So far in Utah, there have been only two cases reported.
According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Davis County Health Department is trying to determine where the first person was, who they were with and what kind of contact they had.
The identity of the patient has not been released. The only information made public is that he or she is over the age of 60, is believed to have been exposed to the coronavirus on a cruise ship and returned to Utah for about a week when they were diagnosed.
On Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health confirmed the second “presumptive positive” of a Utah resident. According to the press release, the person is a resident of the Weber-Morgan health district, is also over 60 and traveled extensively outside of the U.S.
Federal government health officials say it is this demographic age group that is most at risk, with the average age of death at 80.
U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome Adams said in a press briefing Monday that the spread of COVID-19 has one bright lining: It is not being seen widely infecting the young.
“What we want communities to know is that if you are a child or young adult you are more likely to die from the (common) flu than coronavirus,” Adams said. “There is something about being young that is protective.”
Federal statistics set the number of those younger than 19 in the United States to die from coronavirus at about 2%.
According to the CDC, this flu season more than 30-50 million have contracted influenza, with an estimated domestic death toll is as many as 52,000 deaths. Of these, 27 U.S. children have died from the flu. This is the highest number of pediatric flu deaths reported at this point in the flu season since 2003. According to the latest statistics, no child under the age of 9 has died from the coronavirus.
Although the federal government seems to be slowing in ramping up its response, it is at the community level, everyone agrees, that will make the greatest impact on limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
“Right now I don’t think this is something to freak out about,” Cordero said. “It is something to be aware of and take extra care to prevent its spread similar to the normal cold and flu, but … the overall risk to the people in Southern Utah is very low. It is definitely something that people should not panic about.”
The advantage here, Cordero added, is that different municipalities, first responders and health care officials are working well together and pulling in one direction to keep Southern Utah residents healthy.
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