Regional and national health organizations mobilize resources to combat growing coronavirus outbreak

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Union County health officials are preparing to combat the spread of coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a grave warning to communities across the nation on Feb. 25.
Communities, schools and businesses in New Jersey and elsewhere should begin preparing now for “the expectation that this could be bad,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe,” Messonnier added. “But these are things that people need to start thinking about now.”

As of March 3, cases of coronavirus infection have been reported in California, Oregon, Nebraska, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Georgia, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, with nine deaths reported in Washington state.
In a Feb. 28 press release, the Union County Freeholder Board advised residents to keep up to date with reliable, accurate information about COVID-19 and take steps to prepare if the disease emerges in New Jersey.

“We understand that people are very concerned, but as of today there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Union County or in New Jersey,” said Freeholder Alexander Mirabella. “The County’s Office of Public Health is coordinating closely with local, state, and federal health agencies to ensure that the Union County community is informed and prepared in the event that assessment changes.”

The Westfield Regional Health Department — which provides public health and environmental services to Westfield, Summit, Fanwood, Garwood, Mountainside, New Providence and Roselle Park — recently circulated an email informing residents about the coronavirus. While “coronavirus” is a general term referring to a certain type of respiratory illness, a new version has already infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700 in at least 24 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The letter describes coronavirus as “a type of common virus that can infect your respiratory tract and can spread much like cold viruses.” It tends to circulate in the fall and winter. “Almost everyone gets a coronavirus infection at least once in their lifetime,” the letter says, “most likely as a young child.” A novel type of coronavirus, like the one that emerged in Wuhan, can cause an outbreak of respiratory illness, because “people have not developed resistance to it.”

The coronavirus’s symptoms resemble those of seasonal influenza, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Both are infectious respiratory illnesses that induce fever, cough, body aches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea. The virus is contagious. Person-to-person transmission typically occurs via sneezing, coughing or talking. Scientists are currently working on a vaccine.

Atlantic Health System, a private health care company that operates hospitals throughout New Jersey — including sister hospitals Overlook Medical Center in Summit and Morristown Medical Center — addressed concerns surrounding the coronavirus in a March 2 press release. “As the media coverage of novel coronavirus, now called COVID-19, continues to evolve, we want to assure our patients and communities that we are working closely with local, state and federal public health agencies, as well as our own health care professionals, to assure that Atlantic Health System is prepared.”

According to the press release, Atlantic Health System’s clinicians “regularly care for patients with severe respiratory illnesses and other infectious diseases,” and will draw upon that experience to prepare and address key issues, including the early recognition and isolation of any patient identified as being high risk for COVID-19.”

In a press conference on March 2, Gov. Phil Murphy said that one person was set to be tested in New Jersey for the illness. The first case of coronavirus in New York City was confirmed on Sunday. Murphy said there were no confirmed cases reported in New Jersey.

“We’ve been at this for weeks and we are staying vigilant,” Murphy said. “My administration is actively engaged in a multilevel, whole-of-government approach — from our hospitals, to our schools, to our ports — to implement a preparedness and response plan for the potential spread of the coronavirus in New Jersey. Together, we are prepared to respond properly and swiftly to any future individuals who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for coronavirus testing.”

In a letter sent last week to Congress’s House Appropriations Committee, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the Emergency Nurses Association requested an increase in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to a letter circulated by the Westfield Regional Health Department, the New Jersey Department of Health is working with regional health departments “to monitor the situation closely and is proactively preparing guidance documents for health care professionals to be able to effectively respond to any cases that may be identified in the state.”

The department is also working with state agencies “to establish contacts should ill travelers be identified; is creating guidance documents for investigating and managing suspect cases and their contacts; and is evaluating and modifying current respiratory surveillance to assist in the detection of suspect cases.”

The health department recommended the following public health guidelines to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and influenza more generally:
• Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or sleeve, not your hands.
• Wash hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after changing diapers or touching pets or commonly used surfaces. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Stay home if sick.
• Review and follow CDC travel advisories when planning travel. If you become ill after returning home to the United States, call your health care provider before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room. They may want to place a mask on you before you enter the building.
For more information, contact your local health department.