SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Health officials worry the COVID-19 virus or coronavirus could turn into a global pandemic with more than 82,000 worldwide cases and 2,800 deaths. So far in the United States, 60 cases have been reported. But none in Utah yet, although 12 individuals were tested.

“The fact that this disease has caused illness and it has sustained person-to-person spread, those are the two factors out of three for calling something a pandemic. As community-spread is detected in more and more countries and we start seeing this worldwide, that will be the third criteria for calling this a pandemic,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, State Epidemiologist for UDOH.

On Thursday, leaders with the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) and multiple health care systems announced how they were preparing the state for its first possible case. This came after a recent case in California was reported to be “community-spread,” meaning experts don’t know how the patient contracted the virus.

“This person didn’t have any of the risk factors they’re typically looking for. They didn’t travel to an infected area and they didn’t have any known contact with someone infected with COVID-19. But it’s still possible they came in contact with someone that has it and didn’t know it,” said Dr. Dunn.

She added, “It certainly elevates our preparation and planning to another level. The idea of a community transmission in the U.S. puts us on a higher alert and it makes us ramp up our effort even more.”

Dr. Joseph Miner, the Executive Director for UDOH said the CDC is currently recommending travelers to avoid all non-essential travel to China and South Korea. Older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing non-essential travel to Iran, Italy, and Japan.

How would Utah respond to its first case of coronavirus?

Health department officials said if Utah receives its first case of coronavirus, a news release will be sent out within 24 hours of a positive test result. But the location of the infected individual will not be disclosed to protect their privacy.

“We then try to make sure they’re isolated, they stay isolated, and expose as few as possible others. Those who may have been exposed are quarantined, which means we don’t know that they have an infection but they may and so we ask them to stay away from others for 14 days until we know they’re not going to have an infection,” said Dr. Miner.

Dr. Ralph Costanzo, the Chief Medical Officer of St. Mark’s Hospital said their team at MountainStar and HCA Healthcare are confident they have enough protective gear for their staff to manage a surge.

“Immediately, we’ve enacted our emergency preparedness team at the corporate level in Nashville. We’ve been working closely with them as have all of our hospitals. We’ve received a playbook as far as what we need to be doing to be prepared and we’ve been acting on that playbook over the last four to six weeks,” he said.

(Left to right) Dr. Ralph Costanzo with St. Mark’s Hospital, Dr. Kristin Dascomb with Intermountain Healthcare, and Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer with University of Utah Health

Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer, the Medical Director of Infection Prevention at University of Utah said she advises anyone who believes they have contracted the virus to let their healthcare staff know first before going to a medical facility so they can adequately prepare and prevent the spread of disease. If possible, she recommends opting for over-the-phone care or tele-health visits.

Depending on the severity, Dr. Dunn said there are three types of non-pharmaceutical intervention methods that can be pursued once COVID-19 spreads to Utah to help slow the spread of disease:

  • Personal interventions (things everyone can do on a daily basis): Stay home when you’re sick, washing your hands frequently
  • Community interventions (methods public health officials would take to limit social interactions): School closures, canceling church services, and canceling of mass gatherings
  • Environmental interventions: Widespread cleaning of public surfaces such as buses and trains

Dr. Andrew Pavia, the Chief for Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah said children can act as vectors or amplifiers for the diseases. In illnesses like the flu, children can be the “most important spreaders and drivers of the epidemic.”

“We believe children are becoming infected, but they don’t become very sick. But we don’t have all the information that we’d like. We’re reevaluating the information on a daily basis, so we think this will pose less of a risk to children than it will to older individuals, people with underlying diseases,” said Dr. Pavia.

As far as face masks, Dr. Dunn said the public is misinformed about its effectiveness.

“Face masks, in general, are not useful for the general public at this time. If we do have a confirmed case or there is a close contact caring for that confirmed case, the caretaker of the confirmed case will be wearing face masks. But in general, face masks are for people who are sick to prevent them from getting other people ill,” said Dr. Dunn.

John and Melanie Haering

Tooele couple returning home after negative test results

Tooele residents John and Melanie Haering shared the good news Wednesday that they would be returning home after finding themselves in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship nearly a month ago.

John had fallen ill with flu-like symptoms in the middle of their 14-day quarantine aboard the ship and transported to a Japanese hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. He spent approximately a week and half in isolated quarantine and then contracted pneumonia.

“The CDC is counting cases in the U.S. by where they were infected. So even though we know of some Utahns who were infected elsewhere overseas, they will not be counted as Utah cases even though they will come back here,” said Dr. Miner.

In the meantime, Melanie flew back to the U.S. for a second round of quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in California.

John eventually tested negative twice in a row for the virus, a requirement for discharge at the same time Melanie tested negative in the U.S. They shared the results on social media Wednesday and announced they would be reuniting and coming home.

“There is no specific treatment for COVID-19, so most people recover on their own with general symptom management for fever and cough. Those who progress to more severe disease and are hospitalized sometimes require more supportive care. The majority of people are recovering on their own,” said Dr. Dunn.

She said the Haerings would not be subject to any additional rounds of quarantine and can resume their normal routine once they come home.

“There is no risk for them spreading it to the general Utah public. So they’re healthy. It’s great. They recovered well, which is fantastic,” said Dr. Dunn.

Dr. Angela Dunn, State Epidemiologist for UDOH

Health officials said they are still learning more about the coronavirus, but said its range of symptoms have appeared broad in nature.

“It’s everything from potentially asymptomatic to very mild disease, all the way to needing support breathing and even leading to death,” said Dr. Dunn.