The possibility of the new coronavirus spreading in the U.S. has alarmed many people, but Kansas City-area health officials say they are prepared — to a point.
In the past several weeks, area hospitals, health departments and other agencies have been running drills and getting ready to implement emergency protocols in case the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease appears here. But some experts say uncertainty about the way it spreads could affect their ability to respond.
“We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we certainly are preparing for many things that possibly could happen,” says Nancy Tausz, health services director for the Johnson County, Kansas, health department.
Health care providers say many of the most important steps needed to fight the virus are similar to those used to address seasonal colds or flu, including good hand hygiene and isolating people who are sick.
But preventing the spread of the virus could be hampered because of a lack of testing kits that could be used to quickly identify the virus. Currently, testing for the virus is conducted by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, which can have results for local providers within about 24 hours.
Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department, says the fact that COVID-19 often manifests as mild can make it harder to identify and track.
“Our current testing doesn’t pick up very low levels of the virus,” Archer says. “So there’s a weakness there.”
If the virus were to spread in the Kansas City area, health providers’ ability to treat patients could be taxed due to high levels of flu and colds that are already in the area, according to Jill Chadwick, a spokewoman for the University of Kansas Health System — although Archer says health agencies have “surge capacity” to use when needed.
A widespread outbreak of the virus, however, might require health officials to take extreme measures, including implementing quarantines. And Archer says that may be beyond local health departments’ capacity because of declining levels of federal public health funding over the past few years.
“If it’s a few cases, yes, we can handle it, we’re prepared. If we get huge numbers of cases, that’s going to push us to the limit,” Archer says.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar this week requested $2.5 billion to combat the virus. Critics say that’s inadequate. On Wednesday morning, New York Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed spending $8.5 billion.
About 80,000 people have tested positive for the virus around the world, according to the World Health Organization. The overwhelming majority have been in China, where the virus originated, but the virus has now spread to Europe, the Middle East and other Asian countries.
Only a few dozen people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the virus, all of them involving patients who contracted the virus in another country or were in close contact with someone who was infected in another country.
The virus can be life threatening, especially to older people, who account for the majority of deaths. More than 80% of confirmed cases in China have been mild, however, according to Chinese health officials.
As of Feb. 16, there were 70,641 confirmed cases in China and 1,772 deaths, a mortality rate of about 2.5%.
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.