If new virus gets here, health systems say they’re prepared

Quarantine workers in protective suits check identity documents.
Quarantine workers check tourist identity documents outside a plane at Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan in China on Jan. 31, 2020. As the novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, has spread, with one confirmed case as close as Madison, Wis., Minnesota officials say they are preparing to combat the spread of the virus here.
Chinatopix via AP file

At the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Services office, ear-loop masks have been very popular since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, in China.

"Lots of masks have been leaving our building,” said Dave Golden, director of public health and communication at Boynton.

The university says that since Jan. 22, the Boynton pharmacy has sold more than 8,200 ear-loop masks.

The U has suspended study-abroad travel to China and has been communicating with students and faculty about precautions to take while traveling. Golden said there are instructions greeting anyone coming into the Boynton offices about COVID-19.

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"There's a notice on the door, that if you've been to China and you have symptoms we want you to actually call us and we'll meet you in our entry area,” he said. “You put on a mask, there's a special table with masks there so we've upped our game a little bit here. They call one of our medical information nurses and they meet them in the lobby, masked, and then they move them right into one of our isolation rooms."

In short, the university has a plan in place if a student or faculty member comes in with symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.

"From the past and from plans that have gone on continuously, yes, I do feel like we're in a good position to manage an emergency like this,” Golden said.

The university, like the state and its health systems, has been gearing up for the possibility of a confirmed case of the virus. COVID-19 has killed more than 1,110 people in China. There are 13 confirmed cases in the United States, including one in the area of Madison, Wis.

A woman speaks at a podium as two others stand behind her.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks at a press conference about coronavirus alongside state epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield, center, and infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann, left, in St. Paul on Jan. 24, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The key agency in helping the university and state health systems devise plans is the Minnesota Department of Health.

"In the infectious disease area, this is our bread and butter,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of the infectious disease division at the Health Department. “Every single day we're responding to outbreaks and infectious diseases."

She said the focus right now is on preparation and communication.

"A lot of what we're doing right now, since we don't have a case in the state of Minnesota, is communicating and making sure that our partners and those folks that we need to work with closely to have a successful response are connected and receiving the information that they need,” Ehresmann said.

Her agency has plans in place if hospitals were to get full. It has plans in place for when and how to cancel public events if necessary. It is communicating with health officials, with other agencies and with communities that might be at greater risk than others, such as people who have been traveling between Minnesota and China in recent months.

Across the state's health systems, there are more checks in place as patients come into hospitals or clinics. In the HealthPartners system, patients will see signs as they enter clinics or hospitals asking them to put on masks if they've recently traveled to China and have flu-like symptoms.

Joan Sandstrom, vice president of primary care for Park Nicollet Health Services, which is part of the HealthPartners system, said there are also more questions at check-in.

"They will be screened to say, 'Do you have fever? Do you have respiratory symptoms? Have you traveled to China in the past 14 days? Or do you have fever symptoms and you've been in close contact with someone who is a lab-confirmed case of coronavirus?'" she said.

Sandstrom said HealthPartners is fielding a lot of questions and calls from otherwise healthy people concerned that they might have the virus.

"We've got great talking points and triage guidelines for our folks to use to hopefully relieve these people's minds so that they really understand if you don't meet that criteria, you're not at risk for coronavirus,” she said.

Ehresmann said the state has been making these plans for decades, spanning outbreaks of SARS, H1N1 and MERS, along with the global Ebola scare of 2014 and the spread of measles in Minnesota in 2017.

"I don't want to suggest that responding to a public health crisis is a slam-dunk and that there aren't challenges and there may not be missteps,” she said. “But I want people to know that this is something that we think about all the time, that we plan for and that we have had to test recently, and so we feel good about where we're at in being able to respond."