By Anne Blythe and Sarah Ovaska
Chris Kippes, director of the Wake County division of public health, spent more than 30 minutes on Wednesday trying to allay the anticipated public concern about North Carolina’s first case of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus spreading around the globe.
Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials informed the public on Tuesday that presumptive tests from the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health showed a Wake County man had contracted the novel virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will follow up with tests of its own and deliver the ultimate verdict on whether the patient, indeed, has the strain that has caused coordinated containment planning around the world.
The patient, now isolated at home somewhere in Wake County with family members also under quarantine, was likely exposed to the virus while visiting a nursing home in Washington, where there has been an outbreak, according to health officials.
The patient was on a commercial airline in late February that left from the Seattle region and ended up at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Kippes said Wednesday that based on when the man became symptomatic, public health officials in Wake County are not pursuing information about the people who were at the airport or on the flight with the person.
The patient’s first symptoms only appeared on Feb. 25, health officials have said, several days after his airline trip. The positive lab tests came back on Tuesday of this week, leading to many questions from the public about whether they might have encountered the person while out and about.
“We are happy to report they limited their time out in the public and for those circumstances where they were out in the public, they provided us with the appropriate information to do our public health follow-up with those individuals,” Kippes said Wednesday.
County public health workers have contacted people in other counties but would not say which ones. Nor would Kippes elaborate on how many people had been contacted.
Keep calm and wash your hands
“Our job as public health officials is to provide the facts, to be able to talk to the current recommendations in order to help reduce fear,” Kippes said. “So when we start talking about numbers, we have to put that information into context and sometimes that is challenging to translate to folks and we don’t want to cause panic.”
No one who has been in contact with the individual in isolation has shown symptoms or tested positive for the novel coronavirus, first detected in late December in Wuhan, China.
The CDC reports that people are believed to be most contagious when they are showing symptoms, and when they are within 6 feet of someone else, potentially exposing them to droplets from coughs and sneezes.
State health officials are treating the Wake County incident as an isolated one, Kippes reiterated.
“That’s why we are not recommending that organizations make major changes by cancelling festivals conferences or events in Wake County. At this time, there is no reason for the public to panic,” he said Wednesday. “That energy can best be served with prevention methods.”
But despite that caution, the International Festival of Raleigh announced it was cancelling the popular annual event, which was scheduled to happen this weekend.
Avoid close contact.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Stay home when you are sick.
Cover your mouth and nose.
Respiratory illnesses, such as coronavirus, are spread by cough, sneezing, or unclean hands.
Clean your hands.
Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
Practice other good health habits.
Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill.
Epidemiologists and public health officials have different protocols for different outbreaks.
In some cases, they quickly inform the public about potential risks with more details than they have revealed in the wake of the isolated Wake County case. Kippes batted back contentions that health officials were keeping too many details too close to the vest.
“Well I don’t feel that we’re not informing the public. I think this is an example of providing information to the public,” Kippes told reporters who asked whether the lack of details helped lead to mass hysteria.
“With each disease, there are differences. So if this had been a case of measles, for example, that is much more infectious in nature, we would sometimes have to make some kind of public announcement that would say if you were at this location during this particular time on such and such date, we need to hear from you. That’s not the situation for this particular disease. The current recommendations from CDC and our state partners do not warrant that type of strategy.”