Officials on Monday urged Nebraskans to start preparing for the arrival of the coronavirus.
“Our goal here in the state of Nebraska is to be the best-prepared state to deal with the coronavirus,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said at a press conference on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus.
The preparation, he said, should start with good hygiene, including washing hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home if you’re sick so you don’t infect others. Officials on Monday eschewed traditional handshakes as greetings and instead exchanged elbow bumps.
But residents also should start to make sure they have adequate supplies of medications and other provisions on hand should they have to stay home for a time. They also should plan for possible disruptions at work and at home.
“Think about this as a really big snowstorm that’s about to hit us,” Ricketts said.
Researchers in Washington state have said the virus may have been circulating there undetected for weeks, which has bolstered concerns that the virus could spread more widely in the United States. Several cases with unknown sources were reported on the West Coast late last week. New infections since have been reported in California, Illinois, Rhode Island, New York and Florida, as well as Washington state.
UNMC Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold said more testing now is being conducted on the West Coast. That’s likely to lead to more cases being identified.
Earlier problems with test kits, rules around labs’ development of their own tests and stricter testing criteria had limited the amount of testing begin done.
Gold said concerns about the effectiveness of the test developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been resolved. The Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, which is on the UNMC campus, was among the first three such labs in the country to get the OK to run the CDC test. Initially, however, results had to be sent to the agency for validation. That’s no longer required.
The university’s clinical lab staff also is developing its own test. The lab plans to submit an emergency use application this week, said Dr. James Lawler, co-director of the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC.
Gold noted that China saw a big uptick in cases as it began testing more people, particularly those with mild symptoms. “The consequence of that is the more we test, the more we find,” he said.
Two women who have been released from quarantine, Jeri Seratti-Goldman of Santa Clarita, California, and Joanne Kirkland of Knoxville, Tennessee, spoke at Monday’s press conference and praised the health care providers who had seen to their care.
Both Seratti-Goldman and Kirkland have tested negative for the virus throughout the quarantine process, including during their stay at the National Quarantine Unit on the UNMC campus.
Two people also left the unit Sunday. They previously had tested positive but were released after testing negative for the virus in three separate tests, each taken 24 hours apart.
The departure of the four people leaves 11 still in quarantine in the unit. Thirteen people arrived Feb. 17 after being evacuated from a stricken cruise ship that had been moored off the Japanese coast; two more joined the group several days later.
Dr. Michael Wadman, co-medical director of the National Quarantine Unit, said several other people in quarantine have the potential to clear the testing and go home this week.
News outlets in San Antonio reported over the weekend that a patient there was released from quarantine but later returned after testing positive for the virus-induced illness, known as COVID-19.
But Wadman said the current testing regimen created by CDC and another federal agency is aimed at lessening that risk. “With three negative tests, we feel confident folks can leave after that,” he said.
Experts also fielded questions about what wider spread of the virus might mean for local communities. Shelly Schwedhelm, executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness for Nebraska Medicine, said it could mean staying away from others and perhaps canceling large-scale events.
“I know no one wants to hear about that, but those are things that are going to be really important to slow it down in communities where the prevalence starts to happen,” she said.
Gold noted that it will be difficult to make such decisions until more is known about the virus’s trajectory. He returned to Ricketts’ snowstorm analogy. “You really want to prepare as best as we possibly can before it starts to snow,” he said.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who also attended the press conference, noted that UNMC and Nebraska Medicine, its clinical partner, already have been playing a leadership role in preparedness, as they did during the nation’s response to the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa in 2014.
The partners have been providing information and training on how to manage the virus to other hospitals and health systems across the country.
“Nebraska has stepped up to the plate to help lead the nation in its response to the novel coronavirus,” Fortenberry said.