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As coronavirus concerns grow, Maryland hospitals get ready

Officials at Maryland hospitals say they have kept tabs on the growing coronavirus threat as federal officials warn that the illness’ spread in the United States is inevitable.

So far, 57 cases of the COVID-19 disease, which is caused by a coronavirus, have been reported in the United States. In Maryland, two people  have been tested and found not to have the disease.

Hospital officials say they are preparing for the disease to spread.

“Our health system … (has) a baseline level of emergency preparedness for infectious diseases,” said Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System. “We know that these kinds of events come in cycles.”

Maryland hospitals are keeping in touch with local agencies such as the Maryland Department of Health, convening in-hospital teams and task forces dedicated to the virus and monitoring updates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson, drills are held at hospital entrances, according to a spokesman. The University of Maryland Medical System has set up a special unit to examine preparedness.

“A Hospital Incident Command System has been activated at UMMS as well as at each affiliate location, with a focus on preparedness and response across the system, including determining and managing response needs for personal protective equipment and pharmaceutical inventory in accordance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maryland Department of Health,” said David Marcozzi, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in a statement. 

Local hospitals have been seeing patients with the flu. While the flu season has begun to relent, the number of cases remains high, Maragakis said.

Typically, Maragakis said, hospitals prepared for infectious diseases will use syndromic surveillance: keeping an eye out for symptoms, screening respiratory patients, asking patients about travel and isolating potentially infectious patients.

Originally centered in China, the virus has expanded beyond the country in the past couple of weeks. Thousands of cases have been confirmed in South Korea and hundreds have been confirmed in Italy, Japan and Iran, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, which has been mapping the spread of the disease.

The spread of cases beyond China means that the virus’ appearance in the United States is inevitable, Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, said on a press call Tuesday.

“As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,” she said. “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

Patients presenting symptoms of the virus first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. As the outbreak in China grew — more than 78,000 cases have been confirmed in mainland China, according to Johns Hopkins’ Center for Systems Science and Engineering — the Chinese government instituted a travel ban — a quarantine that appears to have been broken.

The virus’ symptoms can include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble. Most people develop mild cases, but in some cases symptoms — including pneumonia — can be severe, leading to fatalities.

As the CDC warns that the spread of the disease in the United States is inevitable, hospitals are planning for surges, Maragakis said.

“We’re really continuing that planning and making sure that we are ready for a variety of different scenarios,” she said, adding that the  hospital thinks about “surge capacity.” 

“Clinical leadership is engaged in conversations around best practices for conserving supplies as appropriate and we have scenario plans in place to address a number of challenges we could face as a result of COVID-19,” the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Marcozzi said in his statement.

Treatment options are limited. There is currently no vaccine, cure or antiviral therapy for the disease. Patients’ symptoms are treated and they are isolated to prevent the spread of the disease.

Fears about the virus’ spread have been at the heart of stock market declines this week, leaving the major indexes in the red for the year.

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