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WMC and public health community update on coronavirus, March 11, 2020

By Kristy Bleizeffer Mar 12, 2020

(Update: Wyoming’s first case of coronavirus was reported late Wednesday night. Read the Wyoming Department of Health update here.)

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020,Casper-Natrona County Health Department and Wyoming Medical Center hosted a joint press conference to update our community about the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The key message today is our community and our county are coordinating our response to COVID-19. Agencies are communicating on a daily basis, and applying what is going on nationally and internationally to our local situation,” said Mark Dowell, MD, the Natrona County Health Officer and an infectious disease specialist with Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases in Casper. “It is highly likely the virus will end up here, but I think the message from the infectious disease world is this is not a panic situation. I cannot stress that enough.”

Conference speakers were:

  • Mark Dowell, MD, Natrona County Health Officer, infectious disease specialist with Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases and co-Medical Director of Infection Control at Wyoming Medical Center
  • Ghazi Ghanem, MD, infectious disease specialist with Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases and co-Medical Director of Infection Control at Wyoming Medical Center
  • Anna Kinder, Executive Director of Casper-Natrona County Health Department
  • Ron Iverson, MD, Medical Director of Emergency Medicine at Wyoming Medical Center

Following is a summary of the top-line messages from the press conference, or you can watch it in its entirety in the link.

Who is most at risk?

While risk of exposure is still low in Wyoming, people most at risk for developing complications from a COVID-19 infection include:

  • People 65 and older
  • People with chronic medical conditions that weaken their immune systems
  • People with COPD and lung disease, diabetes, chronic heart failure, dialysis patients and others
  • Learn more: CDC guidelines for at-risk patients

“Right now, the average age in the United States of people who die from COVID-19 is 80 years old. Not 20. Not 30,” Dr. Dowell said. “Younger people are doing fine for the most part. There are some stragglers, but that’s true of flu as well.”

The rate of mortality will likely change as more people are tested, and officials have better statistics as to how many people get the virus but who do not become ill or have mild symptoms.

Is the hospital and community prepared for a coronavirus outbreak?

Wyoming Medical Center, along with Casper-Natrona County Health Department, have been preparing for infectious disease outbreaks for years.

“We have at our disposal the expertise, the people, and the equipment to respond. This is not the first time that we have faced what we call a pandemic,” Dr. Ghanem said. “Coronaviruses cause the common cold. The only reason this strain is different is that the population has not seen it before.”

Local transmission means people within a community or population become sick in numbers that overwhelm the system.

“The main issue we face is if there is local transmission. It would strain the resources we have available, not only for people with coronavirus, but also for people who suffer other ailments, such as heart attacks, strokes, etc.,” Dr. Ghanem said. “The goal for public health is to try to limit as much as possible the transmission if the virus comes to our community.”

Should a person who suspects they have coronavirus report to the Emergency Room or a local clinic for testing?

No. (If you are having trouble breathing, call 911 and follow EMS instructions.)

There is no treatment for COVID-19, only supportive care for respiratory distress. The majority of cases are mild, and people will be asked to self-quarantine at home and limit contact with other people. Getting a test for COVID-19 is not a medical emergency. If you have reason to believe you might have the virus, and are not in respiratory distress, wait until you can call your doctor’s office for advice, and self quarantine until you connect.

“For a cough and a fever, you do not necessarily need to come to the Emergency Room,” said Dr. Iverson. “Most illnesses that cause these symptoms come from viruses that we don’t have treatments for.”

Wyoming Medical Center is used to treating respiratory infections, such as influenza and RSV, and have processes to prevent the spread of viruses within the hospital. It is also working on protocols to prevent spread of a possible coronavirus case within the facility. That said, do not self-report to the ER. (If you are experiencing shortness of breath, call 911.)

“We are not using the ER for a triage station for anyone who has a cold that is worried they have COVID-19,” Dr. Dowell said. “It’s not good for anyone in the community.”

What should a person do if they suspect they have coronavirus?

If you have reason to believe you have coronavirus, the first thing to do is call your doctor’s office. If it’s over the weekend, self quarantine and wait to call on Monday. The Wyoming Department of Health has a physician hotline to coordinate care and testing of suspected coronavirus cases.

Locally, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department is developing a patient hotline for people who do not have a healthcare provider.

“The health department’s purpose is to protect our public’s health. We recognize that it is a matter of time before COVID-19 iis in our community,” said Anna Kinder. “We anticipate having the hotline in place by Friday, and we will get that information out to the public … We do have a very specific algorithm that we will use to determine whether testing is appropriate, and we are following the guidelines that have been provided to us.

“The main thing is to use the phone,” she said. “Call your provider first. If you do not have access to a provider, call the hotline and we will triage you.”

How can people protect themselves?

Do the common sense things you do to prevent the spread of illness of any kind, including the flu:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water
  • Cover your face when you cough
  • Use Kleenex when blowing or wiping your nose so you don’t transfer the germs to other surfaces
  • Avoid touching your face as much as you can
  • Use the hand gel often
  • Wipe down public surfaces such as desks, shopping cart handles, door knobs and counters with a disinfectant wipe frequently
  • Stay home if you are sick and keep your children home from school and daycare if they are sick

The COVID-19 outbreak is an evolving phenomenon. Stay informed through reliable, well-vetted sources, but do not panic. Follow medical advice and any community recommendations to limit spread.