Is Southern Utah prepared for a coronavirus outbreak?

Southern Utah News

ST. GEORGE (ABC4 News) — Public health officials in Southern Utah say they’re rapidly gearing up in preparation for concerns with COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, especially with such a high-risk elderly population.

ABC4’s Katie Karalis met with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department (SWUPD), the Washington County School District, and officials with Dixie State University to learn about what they’re calling their widespread, proactive response to handling this pandemic.

Related: How are Utah schools and universities responding to coronavirus?

“Panic is not the solution in any situation, but being prepared is always in order,” said Dr. David Blodgett, the director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

Although there are currently no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the five counties served by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, Dr. Blodgett says health officials are anticipating some community spread of the virus and working closely with local school districts in the event that schools will close. He recommends the public regularly checks the SWUPD website for official updates.

Members of the public will currently only be tested for the virus if they’re both exhibiting symptoms and they’ve come in contact with an infected patient; but in this ever-evolving situation, Dr. Blodgett believes those guidelines will become more lenient in the coming days.

Related: Health care officials plead with ‘well’ people seeking coronavirus testing

“Our health care system has set up alternate testing sites, so it’s helpful to learn where those are so you go to those sites instead of going to the ER, where you can potentially infect other people,” Dr. Blodgett said. “The best thing to do is to call ahead and let them know you’re coming.”

Overall, public health officials in Southern Utah told ABC4 News COVID-19 has been a mild disease except for those in high-risk categories: patients 60 years or older and those with previous medical conditions with compromised immune systems. Residents in Southern Utah should be wary of traveling, officials said.

Currently, SWUPD does not plan to advise local school districts in Southern Utah to shut down schools and would not do so unless a staff member or student has tested positive for the virus.

“We’ll base that on the severity of the disease, how many there are in the schools, and the level of concern we have for spread,” Dr. Blodgett said.

If a student or staff member believes they’ve come in contact with an individual testing positive for COVID-19, the health department would likely ask them to stay home for a 14-day quarantine. Dr. Blodgett said the average incubation period is five or six days and the longest time reported in public health studies is 14 days.

While K-12 schools in the Washington and Iron County school districts are not currently planning to close, administrators said they are taking proactive measures to prepare in the event of transitioning to online instruction.

The Iron County School District posted on Twitter that they are “working to keep students, drivers and attendants healthy on transportation. All buses will be sanitized daily with EPA registered disinfectant. Children should wash their hands before/after riding the bus and cover coughs to help keep buses clean.”

The Washington County School District told ABC4 News they’re prepared in case students and staff would need to stay home and have plans in place for students to pick up packets, check out devices, or schedule times to access technology in the buildings if they remain open.

“The situation is evolving quickly. We are using our website as our main point of contact for officials updates and sending emails out to parents, but want to reiterate that it’s not the time to panic and worry,” said Steve Dunham, director of communications for the Washington County School District.

“If we did close our schools, you’ll see some videos, some packets, some online work through different online resources that we have access through the school district,” he added.

Dunham said administrators are working to get teachers and staff up to speed to use their learning management systems currently in place for a “seamless transition.” Parents will also have the option to pick up their children’s packets at designated times.

“We will also have limited options for parents who may not have access to technology to check out devices or come into our libraries. We would schedule it so we don’t exceed the number of people advised to gather in one place,” Dunham added.

WCSD officials announced they’re aggressively disinfecting their buildings and asking that any students and staff who are sick to please stay home. Although they currently don’t have plans to monitor who decides to travel for spring break, administrators ask to please choose wisely. If students or staff feel sick after traveling, they’re advised to not come back to school, according to Dunham.

Dunham said school officials currently do not know when schools would re-open in the event of closures and how long the 2019-2020 school year would be extending. Administrators would need to work closely with the Utah State Board of Education to address those questions.

“Obviously there will be some leniency because we’re going into testing season, so we would need to consider where the testing would take place and how results would be considered,” he said.

Both Dixie State University and Southern Utah University officials announced Thursday their plans to move to online education starting March 23rd, DSU even deciding to cancel all events and mass gatherings on campus.

University officials are advising the public to regularly check updates on both the DSU website and the SUU website for information on commencement and other campus-wide events.

“These actions are proactive, but we feel it’s the right thing to do to keep our campus safe and do our part to not spread the virus any further,” said Dr. Jordon Sharp, Dixie State University’s Vice President of Marketing and Communication.

Officials from the Southwest Utah Public Health Department said they are meeting with the school district and other community leaders Friday afternoon to further discuss Governor Herbert’s guidelines.

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