By Shawn Raymundo, Lillian Boyd and Collin Breaux
Editor’s note: Visit an updated story for the latest figures.
Orange County Health Care Agency officials confirmed two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19: a man in his 60s and a female in her 30s who recently traveled to countries with widespread transmission.
The agency is sending samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for confirmation, and results are pending.
As worries over a potential coronavirus pandemic continue to grow, local medical and government officials are encouraging the community to remain calm, stay informed and, most importantly, wash your hands.
“The more you look for something, the more likely you are to find it,” Dr. Nichole Quick, County Health Officer for the County of Orange, said in a press release. “Now that our Public Health Laboratory is able to perform COVID-19 testing, we expect to see more cases here in Orange County. Our residents should take everyday precautions to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like covering your coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching your face, and washing your hands frequently.”
As of Tuesday, March 3, a total of 60 coronavirus cases had been detected and tested in the U.S., according to the CDC. Another 45 cases represented the passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan who were repatriated to the U.S.
Out of the 60 cases, the CDC noted that 22 were travel-related, 11 were spread from person-to-person, and the remaining 27 were still under investigation.
A dozen states have reported cases of COVID-19, with most of them being found on the West Coast, particularly in Northern California and Washington, Los Angeles Times reported on March 3.
Dr. Rodney Rohde is a clinical and medical laboratory professional with a specialization in virology. He is also the Associate Dean for Research for the College of Health Professions at Texas State University.
“Nothing is really considered an accurate case (of coronavirus) without a confirmed laboratory test,” Rodhe said. “We see numbers like 90,000 . . . but it all depends on case definition.”
Some definitions could include those who show all clinical symptoms versus a lab-confirmed test result.
“Once officials started counting fever, respiratory issues, etc., logistically, we’re going to see an explosion of cases overnight,” Rohde said. “We may not know for certain if these numbers are accurate for a while, because it takes time to test every case.”
According to Johns Hopkins University, as of March 3, there were roughly 93,000 confirmed global cases of coronavirus COVID-19. About 48,000 of those have recovered. About 3,000 have died.
The university’s disclaimer states it relies upon publicly available data from multiple sources that do not always agree.
“Should we be concerned and watching numbers regardless? Absolutely,” said Rohde. “A virus’s goal is to infect the host and reproduce and move onto the next host. That’s what viruses do, in my 25 years’ experience; mankind rarely, if ever, controls or contains a microbial agent. So we do what we can to try to slow it down, which is why we quarantine.”
In South Orange County, there have been no confirmed reports of the virus.
On Tuesday, Dr. Jim Keany, an emergency physician and former chief of staff at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, said there were two patients suspected of the coronavirus at the hospital; one tested negative, and the other was well enough to be quarantined at home with results of the test still pending.
Keany and local government officials have said they are working to stay on top of the situation through coordination with county health agencies.
Officials from Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano stated that they’re closely monitoring the coronavirus situation as the issue continues to develop and evolve.
In emailed statements from the cities of San Clemente and San Juan, both cities stated that information will be provided and updated to respective staff and residents as it becomes available.
“Health officials advise to maintain awareness, have discussions on preparedness within your business and at home, and inform the public on the situation and any countermeasures,” the city of San Clemente stated in its email.
San Juan City Manager Ben Siegel similarly wrote that “we are communicating with City employees and providing information from the Centers for Disease Control on proactive steps that employees can take to minimize the potential exposure to the virus, what the symptoms are of the disease, and where they can turn for accurate information on the topic.”
Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) sent families information based on what the CDC and OCHCA has said, and citing the California Public Health Agency encouraging students, parents and staff who have traveled to Mainland China to stay home from school for 14 days as a precaution.
“We continue to work closely with several state and federal public health agencies and will continue to seek guidance from the Orange County Health Care Agency and the Orange County Department of Education,” the CUSD statement said. “Out of an abundance of caution, we are developing independent study options as well as other learning supports should these become necessary.”
Further updates will be provided to CUSD families as new information becomes available, the CUSD statement said.
Rohde said that it’s difficult to predict which types of emergencies and outbreaks will occur.
“Health officials are overwhelmed, understaffed and underfunded,” Rohde said. “They’ve gone through outbreaks like Ebola, Zika, SARS, so they have that real-time experience and expertise to have an emergency preparedness plan.”
Rohde says that preparation should include ensuring medical professionals have enough supplies such as respirators, masks, gowns and equipment that protects workers as well as patients.
“You need to have leadership and calmness in the face of these things . . . a clear message about what case numbers mean,” Rohde said. “You need good clean hygiene, and you cannot go wrong with hand washing. I talk about this all the time with my students and colleagues. It’s just a practiced behavior. It’s how you use your hands, don’t touch your face, eyes, nose, mouth.”
Dr. Keany said hospitals similar to his and emergency rooms “are always prepared and ready for potential infections and infectious diseases to enter our hospital. . . . Every year, we have flu outbreaks, so every year is a year to prepare for stuff like this.”
Noting the serious public health issue, Keany said the hospital is doing what it can to control it by having medical staff brush up on protocols so that everyone understands how to react if a case arises.
“So, we really haven’t updated any protocols yet. We have standard infections prevention . . . it’s just a matter of making sure everyone is complying and using them correctly,” he said, adding: “What we know, if you have a confirmed case, you need to add a higher level of protection; that’s the only difference that’s come out.”
For instance, he said, staff is required to wear a special mask called an N95 respirator around an individual who tests positive for COVID-19.
According to the CDC, the tight-fitting mask filters out at least 95% of airborne particles, reducing the “wearer’s exposure to particles including small particle aerosols and large droplets.”
Keany emphasized that the coronavirus isn’t a death sentence.
“You would get the sense from the way that people are anxious of this that it’s a death sentence, and it’s not,” he said. “As far as we can tell from the numbers, 98% do just fine, and the 2% are people who aren’t doing well to begin with,” such as the elderly.
On March 3, the LA Times reported that the World Health Organization put the mortality rate for the virus at 3.4%.
According to Keany, the hospital has seen an influx of individuals worried they might have the virus despite not showing any signs or symptoms. Unless you meet certain criteria laid out by the county health office, Keany said, you won’t be tested for the virus.
Based on the CDC’s guidelines, those who have traveled to an affected area, been exposed to a documented COVID-19 virus case and have displayed signs of a lower respiratory illness would be tested for the novel coronavirus.
To help reduce the likelihood of infection, health and city officials advise everyone to wash their hands often with soap for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available.
Also, people are advised to not touch their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, to avoid close contact with people who are sick, to stay home when sick, to cover your coughs and sneezes, and to frequently clean and disinfect touched surfaces and objects.