With federal officials warning there will be a rapid spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., there were heightened concerns in Connecticut Wednesday about the state’s readiness to respond to the virus.
Gov. Ned Lamont held a news conference, flanked by state and health care officials, late Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to allay residents’ fears about the epidemic.
Here are five things you should know about the virus and the state’s response:
State is prepared, governor says
“Connecticut is ready, and we’ve been ready for a while,” Lamont said.
The governor said the Department of Public Health and other state agencies are in constant contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will be regularly updating the state website as new information comes in.
There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Connecticut yet.
“This is not a call to make you nervous, it’s a call to give you confidence that we’re ready for what’s going forward here,” said Lamont. “Right now I feel like Connecticut is a little ahead of the game, in terms of our preparation going forward.”
Earlier Wednesday, the Connecticut Emergency Management Association wrote a letter to Lamont expressing concerns about an “extreme shortage” of personal protection equipment, asking the governor to take immediate action to ensure health care and public safety providers have the materials they need.
The association also asked the governor to partially activate the state’s emergency Operation Center and launch plans to respond to a pandemic.
Lamont acknowledged “there’s a scramble” to find medical equipment given the global spread of the disease, but he said hospitals are ready to start accepting patients, and that officials are looking for other protective equipment “wherever we can find it. That’s true of every state in the country.”
Hartford HealthCare routinely prepares for emergencies like the coronavirus, said Dr. Ajay Kumar, chief medical officer for the hospital system, which activated its Emergency Preparedness Plan in early January.
Kumar said Hartford HealthCare currently has a more than 30-day supply of the necessary medical equipment, but would continue to monitor that supply as the situation evolves.
“This is always a concern for us,” Kumar said. “We keep a constant watch on that. Obviously things can change very rapidly, but we feel very well prepared on that at this time.”
Jennifer Jackson, CEO of the Connecticut Hospital Association, said the state’s hospitals are prepared to care for patients with the virus.
“This is what hospitals do. We regularly prepare, we plan, we train for outbreaks of disease,” Jackson said, noting hospitals are working with the Department of Public Health and other state agencies and are in regular communication with each other as they learn more about the virus, also called COVID-19.
Concern is rooted in uncertainty about the virus
The mystery surrounding this new virus, and what could happen if a hotspot forms in the U.S., has driven the public attention — and fear, said UConn Assistant Professor in Pathobiology Steven M. Szczepanek.
“People’s responses to these viruses, I think, is about the novelty. Every time we see a new virus pop up we see this happen. We had similar kind of scares with MERS, and that kind of died out. We had a lot of uncertainty with Zika. And now people are concerned with COVID-19,” he said.
Szczepanek contrasted the public’s focus on coronavirus with its response to influenza.
“The flu, we’re used to it. We see it every year and the numbers are staggering and the numbers are so much more impactful – and yet the flu hasn’t caused millions of people to be quarantined, it hasn’t caused substantial losses in the stock market the way that COVID-19 is.”
It is unclear if coronavirus is more fatal than the flu
The almost 2% mortality rate of those infected with COVID-19 that has been widely reported is flawed, according to Szczepanek.
It is likely that many people are contracting mild versions of COVID-19, or that they are even asymtomatic carriers and are spreading the virus, but these are unconfirmed cases that are not factored into that 2% mortality rate. If they were, the percentage would be much smaller, the professor said.
“That number is somewhat artificially inflated,” he said. “I think when we look back on this several years from now, we are going to see that it is not as virulent as is being reported.”
By comparison, the flu is extremely widespread and deadly. Tens of thousands of people have died from the flu already this winter.
“I think a lot of the hysteria around this is associated with the newness of the virus,” he said.
Trying to avoid it? Face masks won’t help.
“A lot of people buy [masks] thinking that they are protected, but that does not stop respiratory droplets from getting into your face,” said Szczepanek. “They essentially provide no protection. A lot of people think they do. I won’t say that it won’t help you absolutely at all. But they are nearly useless at protecting you from someone else who is sick.”
Even the N95 respirator mask, which is recommended for health professionals and is designed to fit tightly and filter out small particles, doesn’t completely eliminate the risk of contracting the illness.
Symptoms of coronavirus include cough, shortness of break, fever and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
Masks should be worn by those who do have the virus, however, to protect others from the spread of germs, Szczepanek and health care professionals said.
To protect yourself from the coronavirus, follow the basic hygiene guidelines you learned as a child: wash your hands often and thoroughly, and sneeze and cough into a tissue.
“People tend to dismiss things that sound simple,” said Jackson, of the hospital association. “It sounds simple, but it works, and it’s going to be one of the biggest weapons that we have against this.”
Matt Carter, the state’s epidemiologist, said because the disease isn’t currently spreading throughout the state, new recommendations could come later.
“There will be other social distancing measures that come into play later on,” Carter said, like standing six feet apart from others or cancelling large group gatherings. “These kinds of activities may well be recommended, and something that we’ve actually never seen in the 35 years that I’ve been here.”
If you get coronavirus, there’s not much you can do but self-isolate
There are no vaccines or antivirals to treat this virus, yet.
“You can’t really stop it,” Szczepanek said. “If it does transmit, then the virus is going to spread like wildfire. This virus seems very difficult to contain, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes almost impossible to contain. It will require herculean efforts to contain.”
It is recommended that those who test positive stay home to avoid spreading the disease. Research into the first 425 confirmed cases of the virus by Edward H. Kaplan, a Yale Professor of Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine, showed that isolation will quell outbreaks.
“The good news is that, in principle, case isolation alone is sufficient to end community outbreaks of [COVID-19] transmission, provided that cases are detected efficiently,”Kaplan wrote.