As the number of reported cases of COVID-19, or Coronavirus, increases in the Pacific Northwest, it's understandable that medical face masks are flying off store shelves, but buying such products is likely not the best allocation of efforts to fend off the potentially deadly respiratory illness.
That's the conclusion of Dr. Christopher Cirino, a specialist in infectious diseases at Adventist Health Portland, which serves Gresham and East Multnomah County.
"For the general population, wearing masks won't provide any added benefit," Cirino said. "A mask is most useful in protecting against the spread of particles from someone who is ill."
Cirino is among the experts and officials from Gresham-area medical centers, senior living facilities and schools talking about the extra steps and precautions being taken to address public concerns and prevent further spread of Covid-19.
So far, community spread of the virus in the United States has been concentrated on the West Coast — with cases reported in California, Washington and Oregon. At least three cases in Oregon — including one contracted by a Lake Oswego elementary school employee — have been reported in the past few days.
The first confirmed death in the U.S. was at a Washington care facility, as well as the first reported case of COVID-19 in a health care worker.
Cirino said while the response from China — where the illness is believed to have originated — was commendable for its strong containment, several hundred people had already been infected at the time. The same is most likely true here in Oregon.
"In these cases, containment only stifles growth," he said.
While the complete clinical picture of coronavirus is not fully understood, reported illnesses have ranged from mild to severe, including death, Cirino noted.
Symptoms seem to appear two to 14 days after exposure, and mainly consist of fever, cough and shortness of breath. People may also experience flu-like symptoms like muscle aches and fatigue. In about 10% of cases, people also have gastrointestinal issues.
"It is hard to predict if someone has it," Cirino noted.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 "very high," adding that it's likely that widespread transmission will eventually occur in the U.S.
Passed along through respiratory droplets, the coronavirus is more contagious than influenza, with estimates indicating that one infected person can pass it on to three or four other people. One of the most at-risk groups for becoming infected is healthcare and service providers.
"If someone is ill, practice precautions to protect others," Cirino emphasized. "Put the onus onto those who are ill not to pass it on."
That means following several steps, including:
• Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Clean and disinfect surfaces that are often touched.
• Take care of your overall health: Stay current on your vaccinations, including flu vaccine, eating well and exercising all help your body stay resilient.
• Consult CDC's travel website for any travel advisories and steps to protect yourself if you plan to travel outside of the U.S.
Senior facility risks
Because residents are living in close quarters and often dining communally, senior living facilities and nursing homes are places of concern regarding the spread of Covid-19. Prestige Care Inc., which operates Huntington Terrace and Summerplace Assisted Living in Gresham, issued a statement through its Seattle-based public relations firm, saying the company is taking the situation "very seriously."
As of Monday afternoon, March 2, there were "no known incidents of COVID 19, or Coronavirus, at Prestige Care or any of Prestige Senior Living locations."
The fact that many residents have underlying health conditions puts them at higher risk for death from the virus, medical experts say. Four of the six Seattle area deaths related to coronavirus were residents in a nursing and rehabilitation facility, the Seattle PI news site reported.
"The safety and well-being of our residents and families is our top priority," the Prestige statement said. "During this time, it's important for all our community members to know that we have policies and procedures in place to make sure we are doing all we can to protect those we serve."
The company also is "closely following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) guidelines for preventing the spread of this, and similar, communicable diseases, attentively monitoring for signs of illness and encouraging diligent hygiene practices.
"We are also taking precautions by limiting staff travel and have outlined additional proactive measures that we will introduce as this situation continues to evolve."
Schools take 'extra care'
Mt. Hood Commmunity College is "providing sanitizer stations at various locations throughout the Stark Street campus, distributing sanitizing kits to college offices and instituting daily cleansing practices throughout our facilities," said MHCC Jessica Roberts, MHCC director of marketing and communications.
Public school districts, meanwhile, are receiving guidance and support from the Oregon Department of Education; the Multnomah Education Service District, which supplies nurses to the eight county school districts; and county and state health departments.
The districts, MESD and health department officials engaged in two video calls over the weekend of Feb. 28 to help plan and answer questions.
All East Multnomah County districts have communicated with parents by letter, email or on their web pages. The communications have been translated into five languages, courtesy of Portland Public Schools.
"The health and safety of our students and staff is always our top priority," said Carol Fenstermacher, community engagement coordinator for the Centennial School District. "We are prepared if we end up seeing or hearing of anyone in our district having or having been exposed to Covid-19,"
Centennial custodians are taking "extra care to clean hard surfaces and high touch surfaces like doorknobs," Fenstermacher said.
Custodians in the Gresham-Barlow school district are doing the same.
"We have instructed custodians to use a disinfectant on 'touch points' — spots routinely touched by students and staff such as door handles, light switches, phones, water faucets. The disinfectant is used at the end of each school day prior to the next instructional day," said Athena Vadnais, communications director for Gresham-Barlow.
So far, no events have been postposed or cancelled at any East Multnomah County schools.
All local school districts said they are monitoring the situation and urged parents to keep students home if they display any signs of illness.
The schools also urged parents to follow the widely publicized and simple steps of washing hands often, covering coughs in the crook of your arm and staying home if you or someone in your household is sick.
The districts urged families — particularly those with working parents — to create a childcare plan in case schools close as a precautionary measure against coronavirus.
Districts are evaluating whether it's feasible to teach students remotely using computers and tablets. Neither Centennial or Gresham-Barlow had such a plan as of Monday. Schools could just close and have to make up lost days, as they do with snow days.
"The safety, health, and well-being of our students and staff is always our highest priority," said Vadnais. "The Gresham-Barlow School District Leadership Team is actively monitoring the outbreak (of) COVID-19."
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