Dr. Hardin Coleman, of Scottsboro, said he thinks it’s inevitable that the coronavirus becomes prevalent in Alabama, probably sooner than later.
“There is no need or benefit for panic,” said Coleman. “Most people will just feel very ill with flu-like fever, cough and shortness of breath and recover in seven to 10 days.”
While no cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have been identified in Alabama yet, state and local health care organizations are preparing for the spread of the virus.
Highlands Medical Center is coordinating with the Alabama Department of Public Health to stay informed of the latest development.
“We have been working since mid-January primarily with prevention activities, but also at the same time, we’ve been in the planning stage for the possibility of the virus circulating at some time in our state,” said Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama’s state health officer.
Harris said the state has received tests from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is training staff on how to use them. However, Harris said people should self-monitor illness first and not rush to be tested.
“We feel very comfortable at this time to say we don’t have the disease circulating in our community,” said Harris. “Most people are not likely going to need testing.”
Tests will only be given to those patients who meet the CDC criteria for testing.
A spokesperson for Highlands Medical Center said the hospital has taken precaution to ensure the safety of patients and staff by developing processes to property screen and isolate people who meet the CDC criteria for the virus.
“We have not had any patients at our facility meet the CDC criteria for testing,” said Dr. Lonnie Albin, chief medical officer at Highlands. “However, our focus is on being prepared by following the CDC and Alabama Department of Public Health guidelines in case the virus spreads to our community.”
Dr. Andrew Hodges, of Scottsboro, said the virus is related to the SARS virus, of early 2000s outbreak fame, and is spread through respiratory droplets: cough, sneeze, sputum, runny nose, etc.
“Generally speaking, this is a flu-like illness,” said Hodges. “In the most severe cases (usually the elderly population and those with chronic medical conditions, COVID-19 can progress to a viral pneumonia which is the primary cause of death.”
Hodges said most cases are caused by travel to “hot spot” areas such as China, Iran, Italy and Japan and/or known continuous and close contact with someone else that tested positive for the disease (with or without symptoms).
“Obviously, they have been in close enough contact with respiratory secretions (cough, sneeze, etc.), and then touched their own face (eyes, nose, mouth),” said Hodges.
Hodges said that leads to necessary precautions: the same ones as for seasonal influenza.
“Wash your hands often with soap and water,” said Hodges. “If not available, use alcohol-based hand rub. Limit touching your face. Cover your mouth when coughing and sneezing.
Hodges said if you do not have symptoms (and don’t meet the preceding risk factors) do not wear a mask.
“This has caused panic as everyone has rushed out to buy masks to wear,” said Hodges. “There is no evidence this prevents you from getting COVID-19, or the flu for that matter, if you are non-medical and are wearing a mask for general public use.”
Highlands has received requests from the public for masks, but is unable to provide any medical supplies, including masks, gowns or gloves to the general public as these items must be reserved for patients and the staff treating them, said Albin.
Albin said the goal with any virus is to minimize the spread. He said avoiding sick people is a good way to protect yourself from getting a virus, including this one.
“If you develop symptoms of the virus, contact your health care provider,” said Albin.
Coleman said the thing to remember is the coronavirus is no more dangerous than influenza with the biggest difference being that there is no way to limit spread of coronavirus except isolation.
“We are very fortunate to have influenza vaccinations and treatments, or we would have this same widespread epidemic concern each year with the flu,” said Coleman.