Is Hillsborough ready for the coronavirus?

The UNC Hospital Hillsborough Campus

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to grow, so, too, does the level of fear and confusion. As of this week, there have been two confirmed cases of the virus in North Carolina, one in Wake County and the other in Chatham County. Even as North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper Tuesday declared a state of emergency, there are no cases of COVID-19 in Orange County.

But is the county ready for the likely continued spread of the coronavirus?

“Absolutely,” said Kristin Prelipp, communications manager with the Orange County Health Department. “Our community will work together to get through this. OCHD is working with the N.C. Department of Health & Human Services (NC-DHHS), N.C. Emergency Management (NCEM), local health care providers, local first responders, local schools/universities, county and municipal partners to make sure we have resources needed to respond.”

UNC Hospital Hillsborough Campus, which is the areas largest medical facility, echoed OCHD’s confidence.

“Yes, we continue to prepare for a wide outbreak,” said Alan Wolf, director of News at UNC Health. “UNC Hospitals Hillsborough campus and all UNC Health hospitals have the ability to care for patients with COVID-19, so any patient or patients with confirmed COVID-19 will be cared for locally in an isolation space. Inpatient locations have been designated at each UNC Health hospital and teams have been trained to treat patients if needed. However, as with any patient, we will consider transferring the patient if their clinical condition warrants a higher-acuity level of care.”

He added that the hospital is prepared for the potential increase in hospital admittances of people wanting to be tested for the coronavirus.

“The hospital is currently working through the State Health Department to coordinate all coronavirus testing. At some point soon, UNC Health expects to use our own test, and we will adjust accordingly,” Wolf said.

UNC Health also announced Tuesday that it is enacting voluntary restrictions for visitors to its hospitals across the state due to the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19 in North Carolina.

Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver said she and other municipal leaders are in frequent communication with each other as the news of the spread of the virus and its severity changes daily.

“The county is leading weekly conference calls. municipal staff from the three towns, including public safety personnel, participate in these calls so that we all have the same information,” Mayor Weaver said. “Public Informations staff from all the jurisdictions are also in contact with each other, also at the county’s lead, so that the same information is being dispensed by everyone.”

A clear and consistent message is crucial during a potential crisis, which is one reason Hillsborough is turning to its health department for information with regard to the outbreak.

“The Orange County Health Department is the lead agency on this or any other potential public health threat,” Mayor Weaver said. “We advise that community members stay attuned to the information updates by the OCHD and direct questions there.”

“Disease outbreaks are not new to Public Health Departments,” said Prelipp, with the OCHD. “They are the bread and butter of our Communicable Disease team. We have a pandemic plan in place at all times. This coronavirus is a new strain so we are adjusting our Pandemic Influenza Plan to meet the needs of this particular outbreak. “

Another area of concern for readiness is the county’s public school system. The Orange County Schools District refers to its disease prevention and response plan in place that focuses on keeping staff and students healthy. According to the website, the school system is  launching a district committee to develop a plan that addresses the potential COVID-19 threat. This committee will consist of staff from student services, the operations department, school nurses, and the local Orange County Health Department.

The school district said it has already put in place preemptive steps to prevent the potential spread of the virus, including having staff do extra cleaning — wiping down of surfaces — at least twice a day and having bus drivers use approved sanitizer and/or cleaner to wipe down buses and seats daily.

But with Spring Break in the near future for Orange County Schools students, officials with the district said there are no immediate plans to ask families if they have traveled to areas of greater infection at this time.

In other areas of the country, events and conferences have been cancelled because of fears of the spread of COVID-19, but as yet, businesses in Hillsborough and Orange County have been relatively unaffected by the coronavirus.

“I have not heard of any cancelled local events as of today,” said Mayor Weaver. “Not to my knowledge.”

Prelipp, with the Orange County Health Department, said the area could soon see the Centers for Public Health officials recommend “individual and community actions based on the severity of the pandemic that limit exposure and illness. This technique is called, ‘Social Distancing.’ Many of these recommendations are designed to keep people from spreading illness through crowds or group settings, based on planning done for an influenza pandemic. As we learn more about how COVID-19 spreads, this guidance will be updated where necessary,” Prelipp said.

Additional tips and information on the cornonavirus

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is urging communities to prepare now. Everyone should take simple steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses:

 • Wash your hands frequently. Wash with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds. If water is not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Avoid touching your face. You cannot get sick from this virus if it does not enter your nose, mouth or eyes.

• Cough and sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue, then throw away the tissue

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick

• Stay home when you or a family member is sick

• Clean and disinfect frequently used objects and surfaces. 

• People with mild symptoms should stay home and rest. People who are severely ill or at high risk for severe illness should stay home and call their health care provider.

Who is at Higher Risk?

If you are at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 because of your age or because you have a serious long-term health problem, it is extra important for you to take actions to reduce your risk of getting sick with the disease.

Early information out of China, where COVID-19 first started, shows that some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness. This includes:

• Older adults (60+)

• People who have serious chronic medical conditions like: 

• Heart disease

• Diabetes

• Lung disease

If you are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, you should:

• Stock up on supplies

• Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others

• When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact and wash your hands often.

• Avoid crowds as much as possible

During a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible.

Contacts:

Orange County Schools District:

http://www.orangecountyfirst.com/coronavirus

How to Contact the Orange County Health Department:

• Web: www.orangecountync.gov/coronavirus

• Phone: 919-245-2400

• Facebook: Orange County Health Department

• Twitter: Orange Health NC 

• YouTube: OCHDNC

• Email: covid19@orangecountync.gov