UMMC preparing state for Coronavirus contact

Published 3:54 pm Tuesday, February 25, 2020

By Ruth Cummins


Chances are good that at some point, you have had some sort of coronavirus.

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Chances are extremely slim, however, that any University of Mississippi Medical Center employees have had contact with the novel coronavirus strain making news headlines, a new coronavirus that’s the cause of a worldwide outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in late 2019 in Wuhan City in China’s Hubei Province.

The Medical Center wants its health care providers to have up-to-date information on this specific new strain, referred to as COVID-19, and to be educated on how to answer questions from patients, families and friends, said Dr. Jason Parham, director of the Department of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases.

As of Feb. 19, 15 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the United States, none of them in Mississippi. The Medical Center is actively preparing should it receive a patient with COVID-19, said Dr. Bhagyashri Navalkele, medical director of Infection Prevention.

“There will be more specific instruction and recommendations for employees if that happens,” she said. “Infection Prevention, along with the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services and other key leaders, are making sure that if we identify a case, we will take the proper steps to minimize risk to other patients and staff.”

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted clinicians in this country Jan. 8 to be on the lookout for patients with both respiratory symptoms and a history of travel to Wuhan. The CDC prepared proactively for the virus’ spread to this country by developing guidance for clinicians for testing and managing COVID-19, as well as guidance for home care for patients who have it.

There is no specific antiviral treatment for COVID-19, which has symptoms that include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Most sufferers experience mild illness and recover with supportive care, Parham said. “There have been cases with severe respiratory illness, mostly pneumonia, requiring hospitalization,” he said. “Severe illness appears to be most frequently seen in those with underlying chronic conditions.”

Worldwide, COVID-19 has killed more than 2,000 people, all but six of them in mainland China. It’s infected more than 75,000 people, with more than 1,000 of those cases outside mainland China.

If you have had a cold or cough, it could have been caused by a coronavirus – just not the COVID-19 strain.

“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. Some cause respiratory illness in humans,” Parham said.

“Numerous other coronaviruses circulate among animals, including camels, cats and bats,” Parham said. And in rare situations, animal coronaviruses can evolve and infect people and then spread from person to person, he said. That was the case with the coronaviruses Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, in 2012.

The earliest patients diagnosed with COVID-19 in Wuhan City reportedly had a link to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread.

The Medical Center is following CDC recommendations to identify patients who should be screened for COVID-19. Currently in this country, only the CDC is conducting testing, using multiple specimens from sites including lower respiratory, upper respiratory and blood serum. The Mississippi State Department of Health is expected to be equipped for laboratory testing for COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

“We have a high number of flu cases in Mississippi, and we are continuing to see an uptick,” Navalkele said. “If you are sick with the flu, you need to make sure you are staying home and taking appropriate precautions.”

Employees as of now have no reason to be fearful, Navalkele said. “This particular coronavirus from China is a new infection. Limited information is available, and that results in anxiety and fear,” she said. “Because it’s new, not everyone has immunity against it. It’s another virus, but one where you would need to take the same precautions as you would with the flu.”