Government officials and health-care providers in Pennsylvania are preparing for the outbreak of coronavirus to spread to the Keystone State.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement Feb. 26 that the Wolf administration is taking steps to prepare for community spread of the deadly disease.

“We are working to make sure our health systems, first responders and county and municipal health departments have the resources they need to respond,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with the World Health Organization (WHO), have warned that novel coronavirus is a cousin of the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus, aka SARS. Symptoms include a runny nose, cough, sore throat, headache and maybe a fever. People with weaker immune systems, such as the very young or old, could develop a more serious respiratory tract illness such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

Symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure.

The WHO on Tuesday announced that 3.4 percent of COVID-19 patients worldwide have died from the illness, up from a previous mortality rate of 2 percent.

Comparatively, medical experts say the death rate for flu is about .1 percent, while the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 — the deadliest in history — was estimated at 2 to 2.5 percent.

“We know through our work with CDC in planning for disease outbreaks that it is best to prepare now,” Levine said in the statement. “The same family emergency plans and kits that we use to prepare for flu or norovirus, and even snowstorms and floods, are important now. Pennsylvanians should continue to help stop the spread of viruses by washing your hands, covering coughs and sneezes, cleaning surfaces and staying home if you are sick.”

As of March 3, according to CNN, there are “118 cases of the novel coronavirus, including nine deaths,” in 13 states in the U.S.

The deaths have all occurred in Washington state, the report said. To date, no incidents of coronavirus — also known as COVID-19 — have been reported in Pennsylvania, although two cases have been reported in New York and at least five additional cases are in New England.

So far, according to CNN, the virus has killed more than 3,100 people worldwide, most of them in mainland China. There are now over 90,000 global cases, with infections in more than 70 countries and territories.

“As this situation evolves, we will continually update Pennsylvanians through our website, health.pa.gov, our Facebook page and our Twitter account,” Levine added. “It’s important to remember that the most accurate and timely information regarding this outbreak is available through the Department of Health, as well as the CDC’s website and social media channels.”

Locally, a spokeswoman for WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon said “there is no known risk of coronavirus at any WellSpan facility,” but the health provider — which also maintains nearby hospitals in York and Lancaster counties — is taking steps to ensure they’re ready to meet the demand.

“WellSpan Health is closely monitoring the coronavirus situation, with a team that meets daily to update our preparations and ensure we are adequately monitoring any possibly affected patients,” WellSpan spokeswoman Cindy Stauffer said in an email.

Stauffer said WellSpan is following CDC and state Department of Health guidelines to evaluate travelers from places that have been hit by confirmed cases of the virus. In fact, she said, signs have been placed at the entrance to hospital emergency departments, walk-in clinics and primary care practices asking patients to let the staff know immediately if they’ve been to at-risk countries and, if so, to ask for a mask.

“If you have been to China, Iran, Italy, Japan or South Korea within the past 30 days, and you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms, we recommend you contact your healthcare provider before going to the doctor’s office or hospital,” Stauffer said.

“All our hospitals and staff are trained and equipped to care for patients with any type of contagious disease,” she said. Also, she added, “we are working closely with suppliers to ensure we have adequate personal protection equipment for employees who work with patients who have contagious diseases. We are encouraging employees to use the supplies judiciously and encouraging our well patients not to wear masks, to ensure health care organizations have a ready supply of such materials.”

Stauffer said the best prevention for coronavirus, just like colds and flu, is the “proper respiratory etiquette.”

That means covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using either a tissue or your inner elbow, and washing your hands frequently, using soap, water or an alcohol-based anti-bacterial hand rub.

According to a March 2 report by PennLive, Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center has been designated an ebola treatment center since 2015 and is also in a good position to handle an outbreak of coronavirus.

It’s one of only four hospitals in Pennsylvania with the designation.

“We’ve had plans in place for a long time. We are revising some of those specific to this virus,” Dr. Catherine Paules, an infectious disease specialist for Penn State Health, told PennLive. “We’re working around the clock on these issues.”

Preparations for an outbreak of ebola or other highly contagious diseases such as COVID-19 include having a stockpile of protective clothing for health-care workers, space to isolate the sick from other patients, and response drills by the hospital staff, according to the report.

Unfortunately, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the availability of testing is still limited.

The federal government has loosened rules to allow public health labs and academic medical centers to design and use their own versions, after previously denying a request by the Association of Public Health Laboratories for permission to do just that.

That agency on Sunday estimated that its 125 state and local member labs could soon be doing 10,000 tests for coronavirus a day, the Inquirer reported.

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Tom Knapp

Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.