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Health officials: Prepare, but don't panic

Picture a college basketball game being played in a big gym but with no spectators. Maybe the teams are all wearing surgical masks. It’s on Southern Oregon University’s list of potential strategies if COVID-19 takes hold among its 6,200 students.

The school’s Incident Command Team was activated Monday and meets twice daily to track the latest information on the virus and “do contingency planning if we have to close for a time,” SOU President Linda Schott said in an interview.

The campus is on code yellow and would move to code orange if the World Heath Organization declares it a global pandemic, said Greg Perkinson, SOU team chief and provost for finance & administration. Code orange happens when there’s “sustained person-to-person spread outside China,” said the Centers for Disease Control — adding we’re close to that point.

At that time, said Perkinson, SOU could ask people who feel sick to get dismissed and voluntarily self-quarantine at home. The school could also cancel basketball games and other sports and is exploring whether games could be played without an audience.

“We clearly have community spread,” said Jackson County Health Officer James Shames. “It’s popping up all over the country. I don’t see how we dodge this bullet, though I can’t predict the future. We should prepare, so if there’s a lot of sick people, the public health response isn’t overtasked, and that means focus on simple basics of no handshaking, wash hands, cover coughs, don’t touch your face, etc.”

Shames said “novel” diseases that we’ve never had before, like this one, can spread quickly through the community, so we want to take care of ourselves by staying home when sick, have enough food so you don’t have to go out, avoid large groups, work from home if possible.”

“If we get an outbreak, be ready that facilities might close,” Shames says. “Every business and family should ask yourselves, ‘Could your employees work from home? Is there a way that critical conferences can happen remotely? If you have to get people together, can you keep them 3 to 6 feet apart?’”

Asked if there’s cause for fear, Shames responded, “We need to remember there aren’t that many cases or fatalities in the U.S. It never helps to panic. It helps to prepare and plan. Ask who is going to take care of grandma or the kids if we’re sick, even if you’re not in the hospital.

“Also remember normal flu is 0.1% fatal, and this virus is 2%, but with people over 80, it’s 15%.

People were visibly stocking up on food, Vitamin C and zinc lozenges at the Ashland Co-op this week, leaving some shelves looking a bit scanty. Hand-sanitizing spray was virtually gone, with resupply not expected for a week.

Shopper Elayne Taylor said, “I’m washing my hands a lot and working at home. I’m not really afraid. If you live your life petrified, it’s not living. I have enough other personal stuff to worry about. I was just at a Medford store when they put surgical masks out, and they were gone in 10 minutes.”

Shopper Colet Allen said, “Worried? Who isn’t? But I take all the precautions, wash my hands a lot more and try to get sources of information I can trust, not just talk of people. Panic? No, that definitely doesn’t help.”

Asante spokeswoman Lauren Van Sickle said COVID-19 may be new, but preparing for diseases of this magnitude is not new for Rogue Regional Medical Center, as it prepares for every type of emergency all year.

“From what we know from CDC, most people do not become seriously ill and don’t request hospital care,” she said.

The hospital gets many calls about the bug, but they don’t do testing, says Van Sickle. That’s done by county health, or you should contact your primary care provider about who they will and won’t test.

“Our protocols are in place. It’s a drill we go through on a regular basis. Flu, ebola, COVID, they all have their idiosyncrasies, and we’re ready with emergency response to isolate people and handle any influx of patients.”

Is COVID-19 inevitable here? Shames says, “No, it’s not inevitable here, but it’s quite possible. It’s fairly contagious and attaches to people easily, even those who haven’t traveled or been in contact with the disease.

“Many organizations have past plans on preparing for pandemics. Now is the time to dust off those plans and partner with public health.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneColet Allen shops at the Ashland Food Co-op Monday. Allen said she’s taking more precautions to protect herself from COVID-19.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneAshland Food Co-op was out of hand sanitizer Monday.