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Rogue Valley on guard against coronavirus

From washing their hands to avoiding travel to China, Rogue Valley residents can help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Local hospitals and public health officials are taking steps to prepare for a possible outbreak of the virus that has killed more than 200 people in China and sickened almost 10,000. They’re also offering tips on how to stay safe.

“We take it very seriously. We don’t know if we’ll have one patient or 100 patients who were exposed to this,” said Julie Zetterquist, infection prevention manager for Asante, which operates hospitals in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass.

So far, seven people in the United States have tested positive for novel coronavirus, also known as 2019-nCoV. The cases are in California, Washington, Arizona and Illinois, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coronaviruses include the common cold and viruses found in a variety of animal species.

In rare cases, animal coronaviruses can infect humans and then spread among people, according to Jackson County health officials.

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, coronavirus outbreak that started in China in 2002 likely originated in bats that spread the disease to civets sold in live animal markets in China. Civets, which look like a cross between raccoons and otters, are considered a delicacy there.

Bats have also been blamed for infecting camels that in turn spread Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, to humans starting in 2012.

The new coronavirus outbreak may have originated at a seafood and animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, researchers believe.

The Chinese government issued a ban this week on the trade of wild animals, which are often used for food and traditional medicine.

Globally, the World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

So far, the CDC says, the risk of infection for the American public is low.

The U.S. State Department is warning Americans to avoid all travel to China.

Although some airlines in the United States have canceled flights to China, those actions haven’t affected the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport, said Debbie Smith, public information officer for the airport.

The airport in Medford doesn’t have direct flights to China, she said.

According to the CDC, anyone who has returned from China within the past 14 days and has a fever, cough or difficulty breathing should seek medical care right away. But call ahead to a doctor’s office or hospital, the agency said.

“If someone is worried they are potentially at risk, please call your health provider or the emergency department first,” Zetterquist agreed. “Don’t just show up unless you need immediate help.”

Calling ahead allows health workers to plan for your visit.

Zetterquist said Asante hospitals are following the mantra “identify, isolate and inform.”

Asante staff members are trained to identify people at risk from coronavirus by asking if they’ve traveled to China within the past 30 days or been around anyone who has. They’ll also ask about symptoms like fever, cough and respiratory illness, Zetterquist said.

People who are identified as being at risk will be asked to put on a mask to help prevent the spread of any virus. Hospital workers will also don protective gear, she said.

An at-risk patient will be escorted to a room away from other patients, Zetterquist said.

“By calling ahead, we can have a room ready,” she said.

The patient will then receive treatment and information from health care providers, she said.

Zetterquist said local hospitals will not turn away patients who may be infected with coronavirus since they are there to receive care.

To track and control any outbreak, Jackson County public health officials have put out the word that health care providers and hospitals should report any suspected cases of coronavirus, Zetterquist said.

The county’s communicable disease program will perform case investigations and monitor all suspected and confirmed cases of coronavirus in the county, according to Jackson County Public Health.

People who fear they may be infected should seek treatment, avoid travel and contact with others, cover their mouths and noses with a tissue or their sleeve when coughing or sneezing and wash their hands or use an alcohol-based sanitizer, the CDC recommends.

“Hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene are still the best measures to prevent infection,” Zetterquist said.

The global coronavirus outbreak is occurring in the midst of flu season in the United States.

Asante hospitals were already taking precautions against the flu. Many of the safeguards against the flu and coronavirus overlap, Zetterquist said.

At Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, the hospital has one-stop hygiene stations set up for the public throughout its campus. The stations are equipped with tissues, masks and alcohol-based sanitizer.

Similar stations are scattered around other local hospitals and doctors’ offices.

The Medford airport is equipped with hand-sanitizing stations. As always, people can wash their hands with soap and water in the bathrooms. The airport is not providing masks, Smith said.

Zetterquist cautioned against following unproven and potentially deadly advice circulating on social media about preventing or treating coronavirus.

One particularly dangerous falsehood states that drinking bleach can ward off the illness.

Bleach is a caustic agent that burns and corrodes tissues.

“Drinking bleach will ruin everything from the first place it hits all the way down. Ingesting a product that is extremely harmful is never a good idea,” Zetterquist said.

The Food and Drug Administration has received reports of people suffering severe health problems, including acute liver failure, from ingesting bleach products marketed under names like Miracle Mineral Supplement. Social media posts falsely claim the products can cure everything from the flu to cancer to autism.

Zetterquist said sticking to proven prevention strategies like hand washing is safer and more effective.

Although many people are alarmed by the specter of coronavirus, public health officials warn the common flu will likely prove far more deadly in the United States.

More than 8,000 Americans have already died from the flu this season, officials said.

The CDC estimates up to 20,000 Americans may die, and 15-20 million people in the United States will be sickened by the flu.

The flu is circulating widely in the local area, and Jackson County Public Health officials said they continue to see an increase in positive flu tests.

It’s not too late to get a flu shot, health officials said.

There is currently no vaccination against the new coronavirus spreading out of China.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Travelers unload from a flight Friday at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune