The novel coronavirus outbreak that is spreading across the world, and has killed six people in Washington, may be confirmed in Clark County by midweek.
On Monday, Clark County Public Health sent seven specimens for testing to Washington’s Public Health Laboratories in Shoreline. Public Health is supposed to receive test results today or Wednesday. Three more specimens that were collected at PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center in Longview were sent to the state for testing. One test has returned negative, and the other two are pending.
The seven Clark County people don’t have recent travel history or known exposures to any confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, according to an email from Clark County Public Health Public Information Officer Marissa Armstrong.
That means those cases have met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing criteria for people without known exposures, Armstrong said. In order to be tested without known exposures, people need to have a subjective or confirmed fever with a severe acute lower respiratory infection, such as pneumonia, requiring hospitalization and no other explained diagnosis, such as influenza, according to the CDC.
Five of the county’s specimens were collected at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, said Dr. Lawrence Neville, chief medical officer.
PeaceHealth has set up “screening protocols to identify those who have traveled abroad or have symptoms,” and will be able to implement CDC-recommended isolation processes and procedures if needed, according to a hospital news release.
“We stand ready to serve the community no matter how this develops,” Neville said. “We’ve been preparing for about five weeks.”
PeaceHealth has placed alert signs in the hospital and has been collecting specimens to send to Clark County Public Health, which are then sent to the state laboratory. Local clinics in Clark County are referring possible cases to PeaceHealth and Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, Vancouver Clinic Chief Medical Officer Alfred Seekamp said.
Seekamp said his clinic has been preparing for a local manifestation of COVID-19 since the outbreak began in January in Wuhan City, China. The clinic has a situation management team for COVID-19, which is now meeting daily and gathering information from Clark County Public Health and the CDC.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for the outbreak Saturday, and Washington has 18 confirmed cases.
Seekamp said he feels Vancouver Clinic is more ready for COVID-19 after last year’s measles outbreak in Clark County.
“We prepare for the current situation and anticipate what the future could bring,” Seekamp said. “We want to stay a couple steps ahead.”
In the next day or two, Vancouver Clinic is going to start performing more intensive COVID-19 screening for people who visit the clinic, or set up an appointment, which can include asking people about recent travel history.
Anyone who suspects they may have coronavirus should call medical providers to let them know before visiting. Seekamp said the best way for people to protect themselves is to avoid sick people and practice proper hygiene.
“That’s probably our best defense,” Seekamp said. “The things our parents taught us when we were young.”
Schools on alert
School districts in Clark County are monitoring for possible cases of the virus and following guidance from Clark County Public Health. Students and staff at area schools are advised to wash their hands often and for at least 20 seconds, or to use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Districts encourage parents to keep their sick children at home.
In a letter to parents, Vancouver Public Schools advised parents to make a child care plan in case health officials recommend school closures.
“If we had a confirmed case, that would be the next step,” said Pat Nuzzo, district spokeswoman for Vancouver Public Schools. “But again, we’d follow the direction of (Clark County Public Health).”
Public health agencies aren’t recommending school closures absent a confirmed case among students or staff. However, several school districts in the Puget Sound area closed Monday, making the call out of an “abundance of caution.”
Here in Clark County, however, schools and district facilities have stayed open. Evergreen Public Schools spokeswoman Gail Spolar also said the district will follow Public Health’s guidance about whether to close schools.
“They’re the experts in public health, and that’s the direction we’ll follow,” Spolar said.
At Washington State University Vancouver, meanwhile, a faculty member is self-quarantined in Portland after one of their family members was exposed to COVID-19. The faculty member was not directly exposed, and neither they nor their family member are experiencing symptoms. The faculty member is teaching from home until their family member has been cleared to return to work. Their office in the McClaskey building and classroom were disinfected over the weekend.
WSU and Clark College have also both launched their incident response teams — groups of staff from across the colleges who meet daily to review the latest news about the virus and decide how to respond.
The Vancouver campus had an unusual opportunity to see the system in action in July when the rare corpse flower Titan VanCoug bloomed. The campus activated the “Incident Command System” to prepare for the massive crowds to see the stinky flower.
“We ended up seeing 20,000 people,” university spokeswoman Brenda Alling said. “It was an opportunity for us to practice that.”
Clark College spokeswoman Kelly Love also urged people to remember the virus is “not contained to any one geographical region or culture” and to “provide some grace.”
In other parts of the world, fears over novel coronavirus have sparked xenophobia and racism toward people of Asian descent. KABC in Los Angeles, for example, reported in February that an Asian American boy was hospitalized after he was attacked and accused of having the virus.
Area schools are not aware of any such incidents locally.