CORONAVIRUS

Iowa's public health apparatus prepared for novel coronavirus outbreak, state official says

State Hygienic Lab able to test for virus soon

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Corona
This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV. This virus was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (CDC via Associated Press)

Although it’s not possible at this time, the State Hygienic Lab soon should have the capability to test patients for the novel coronavirus that is spreading rapidly across the world, Iowa’s top public health official said this week.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is providing testing kits for COVID-19 to state public health laboratories, including the state of Iowa’s Coralville-based lab, State Epidemiologist and Medical Director of the Iowa Department of Public Health Caitlin Pedati told state senators during a Human Resources Committee meeting Wednesday at the State Capitol.

Testing for the respiratory virus currently only can be done at CDC facilities.

Pedati said there were errors noted in the first testing kits sent to the state public health labs, and that the CDC was in the process of reissuing those kits. She estimated Iowa should receive those kits in the next two weeks.

While the risk for an outbreak in Iowa still is low at this time, Pedati said the state public health department is prepared to take on any new cases of the respiratory virus that was first identified in December.

“Any time we have the emergence of new virus that’s able to infect people, this is a serious public health concern,” Pedati said. “But I want to emphasize this is precisely the kind of concern that the state works with federal and local partners to prepare for.”

There is no community spread in the country as a whole, meaning risk only is associated with those who recently have traveled to China. However, federal public health officials announced earlier this week that a spread of coronavirus in the United States is “inevitable.”

As of Wednesday, more than 81,000 cases have been confirmed in dozens of countries. Some countries, including Italy, Spain, Iran and Japan, have canceled public events and issued travel advisories in an attempt to stem the sudden uptick of cases there.

Two Iowans who had traveled to mainland China were tested earlier this month for COVID-19 and the results came back negative, according to the state public health department.

Twelve individuals — who are not exhibiting symptoms, but may be at risk — are under observation by the state public health department for a period of 14 days. An additional 30 Iowans have completed that 14-day public health monitoring.

The United States reported 53 total confirmed cases as of Wednesday, according to the World Health Organization.

But the situation is changing rapidly, and Pedati said its important for Iowans to prepare for COVID-19 in the same way they would prepare for a flu season or anything that can affect their health.

The Iowa Department of Public Health recommends everyday preventive tools to help Iowans stay healthy if an outbreak would occur. Those include washing hands often with soap and water, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes and — most important, Pedati said — staying home when you are sick.

She also noted it can be a frightening situation for some, so it’s important that Iowans seek out good, accurate information.

“There’s still much we don’t know, but we will share as we find out more,” Pedati said. “We want people to recognize this is the type of work public health prepares for. We’ve been doing this for decades.”

Reported illnesses have ranged from mild to severe, in some cases even leading to death. Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

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Individuals who experience these symptoms and have returned to Iowa from mainland China since Feb. 3 should contact the Iowa Department of Public Health or their local county public health department.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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