Kent County Health Department discusses COVID-19 preparations

Mar 3, 2020

COVID-19 virus
Credit PBS

In the past. You know 10 to 20 years there have been a number of international public health scares whether it was avian influenza or Ebola or zika virus, there have been a number of things that have raised fears internationally and also here within the U.S., but ultimately we were not impacted vary significantly by those things and so we tend to have this assumption that we're protected by our distance from the rest of the world here in North America and also our reliance on medicine. We have this belief that in the end our superior medicine technology is going to protect us from all of these epidemics and unfortunately that just is not true. 

What are the realities as we begin to see cases across the United States and a few deaths. This is the beginning, I would imagine, and what can we expect in the weeks to come?

Yeah, so we're all watching this very closely and it's clear now that the transmission of the COVID-19 virus has jumped the fire lines of corantine to isolation. And because we know so little about this virus, I think we had all hoped that we could contain this within the travelers who had a history in mainland China. Now that's clearly not the case as demonstrate by what we're seeing on the West Coast, especially but now also with cases popping up throughout the country. So, I think it's reasonable now for us to conclude that this virus jumped those fire lines or made it around those defenses of isolation and quarantine probably a couple of weeks ago, maybe as long as 3 or 4 weeks ago even, and is within our border and is a is probably being experienced by countless numbers of people in ways that aren't severe enough to require hospitalization.

But as we see a few cases this seems to be a highly contagious virus.

It seems that way. Yes, so kind of a good news/bad news as early on we were told that the the communiqu ability of this is pretty low. Well, it now seems based on what we're seeing that it's actually much more transmissible than what we had originally been told by China and by our early observations. The good news, I think is that I believe that our surveillance is only catching the most severe cases; those that are being hospitalized and those that unfortunately are leading to death. So, I do believe especially because we have no connectivity between these deaths and travelers. We have very little connectivity between with case history between those who are sick right now in hospitals and any known exposure to the sick people in Asia or Europe. And so it seems likely that there has been a chain of sick people, or asymptomatic infected people, that has led to some of these exposures which again leads me to believe that the actual mortality, the actual severity of this, is probably less than what we originally told as well. So, we're hopeful that that's going to be the case and that this is not going to be as severe or have a mortality is high at 2% as what we were originally told, but we still have to wait and see and we really need to focus on encouraging people to do those things that are within their control to reduce their risk and to control fear.

When you say asymptomatic, just to be clear, the sense is that there are other Americans who have it who may have some very mild symptoms, may not know that they have it, but are transmitting it.

I guarantee that the case. That has to be the case based on what we're seeing in the Western states that there are Americans right now who have infection with COVID-19 that are asymptomatic, they're infected, but they're experiencing no symptoms or who have very mild symptoms.  A slight cough or maybe a mild fever, feeling just a sense of illness for a short period time, but nowhere near the level that would need someone to go to the hospital.

Can you take me behind the scenes, what your days have been like from the time you walk in to the time you turn out the lights, what's it been like? Who are you communicating with both at the federal state and local levels?

Yes, pretty much everyone. Myself and my team on adaily basis are communicating with our colleagues at the state Department of Health. We are following very closely with the CDC and their experts are communicating to us. We have calls regularly with those agencies. We're also communicating frequently with our local health care providers, with our local schools, and we are fielding an awful lot of calls from concerned citizens. We're also working with local leaders to make sure they have the information that they need. And social media, you know that's one thing that we are really trying to take advantage of in this situation because people access it all the time and it gives us the ability to speak directly to the community on an ongoing basis. Certainly encourage all of your listeners to please follow our social media, especially Facebook where they get regular updates from us.

Are you in conversation with local school districts, higher ed, business leaders? Are there some plans that you're seeing put in place all ready just in case this does begin to spread into West Michigan?

We are communicating regularly with the schools and with local businesses. In fact, last Friday we shared we had just received guidance from the CDC for our schools and so we are communicating that through the Kent County Intermediate School Disctrict and hoping to empower them with the information that they need in order, right now, to develop a plan and to work on their institutional sanitation and their messaging to their families and to their employees. Then with the business community, there's also guidance on or county website AccessKent.com that provide some guidance for them and how they can prepare. We really want people to think about one of the things that they can do, within their own power either as individuals or as employers, to take some control over this and to plan for how would we respond if we had cases within the walls of our businesses or schools. And that may include things such as working remotely or educating remotely or improving our plans for infection control in those buildings. Doctor, I have to ask; what are you doing in preparation? You see a lot of these video images, photographs from China, Japan where we see a number of people wearing masks. How are you getting ready for this? 

Personally, I'm not a big fan of masks. I think that masks do very little for the citizens at large, or even for myself, with the work that I do on a daily basis, I'm not wearing a mask and I certainly wouldn't encourage anyone else to. I think we need to save our limited mask supply for health care providers or for those who are actually sick to contain their coughing and a limit exposure. In my own family, my own experience we are preparing for what would it look like? How would we manage to get by for up to a couple weeks with being isolated her house. And I would encourage all people to think about that and not just for COVID-19, but for power outages or other natural disasters these things happen and it's really important that we all have an emergency preparedness plan. The other thing I do personally, and my family does, is to make sure that we're up to date with their vaccinations and while there's not a vaccine for COVID-19, the reality is that this is also a very rough flu season and our hospitals are dealing with a huge burden of sick people with respiratory complications because of influenza. It's important that we do, as a community, that we do what we can to lessen the burden on our healthcare institutions because if, in the worst case scenario, COVID-19 becomes a serious challenge, we don't want to have an already stressed our health care system because of influenza.

Dr. Adam London, you are administrative health officer with the Kent County Health Department, thank you so much.