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Carroll County health officials open coronavirus hotline, work to coordinate response

Although the coronavirus has not yet spread to Carroll County, local health officials have opened a new hotline for information on the virus and the illness it causes, COVID-19, and are coordinating in preparation for its potential arrival.

The Carroll County Health Department launched a new hotline Tuesday morning in response to an increasing number of calls placed to the department’s main phone number concerning the coronavirus.

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“Our goal is to make sure the public has the information they need to keep themselves and their families healthy and safe,” said Maggie Kunz, health planner for Carroll County Health Department. “We also want to free up our communicable disease staff, who were receiving most of the calls, to prepare to track and manage any potential cases.”

As of Tuesday evening, Maryland had nine confirmed cases, according to Gov. Larry Hogan, the cases being in Harford, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

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There have been no cases identified in Carroll County at this point, according to Kunz.

“As far as we know, there are no positive cases of COVID-19 in Carroll County," she said. "If we do have a case or cases, we will do our best to make sure our residents have that information as soon as possible.

In other efforts to prepare for the coronavirus, LifeBridge Health has announced modified visitor rules at all its hospitals, including Carroll Hospital, Sinai Hospital and Northwest Hospital: No visitors younger than 18 will be allowed in unless they are a parent of a minor patient, only one adult visitor will be allowed at a time, people with flu-like symptoms will not be allowed in, and people cannot visit within 14 days of overseas travel.

In addition, tents might soon be installed outside the emergency departments at Carroll, Sinai and Northwest hospitals in what LifeBridge described in a news release as a “proactive measure.”

“As part of our COVID-19 planning, our teams recognized that, should there be a widespread outbreak of COVID-19, there could be a need for a large area to screen and triage people who may have this new virus,” the release states. “While we hope that we will not have need for them, having these tents in place will allow our teams to respond more quickly should the need arise.”

The hotline can be reached at 410-876-4848 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, according to Kunz, but those calling outside of those hours can leave a message or call the Maryland 211 line.

Anyone who lives in Carroll County is welcome to call the hotline to get answers to their specific concerns related to the coronavirus, according to Kunz, but anyone who is having a medical emergency should call 911.

“We are getting several calls per day from citizens and health care providers,” she said. “We are working closely with partner agencies and the state health [department] to get information out.”

Health department officials will also join Carroll County Emergency Management officials Friday morning to brief people who might be on the front lines of responding to an outbreak in Carroll, such as school and fire officials. That meeting will not be open to the public. The goal is to provide accurate information about the disease and discuss preparedness and planning, according to Emergency Management Manager Valerie Hawkins.

The Carroll County Arts Council, meanwhile, issued a statement Tuesday stating that while they are monitoring the situation, upcoming events upcoming concerts, the children’s theater performances of “Seussical Kids,” and the PEEPshow in April have not been cancelled and are expected to take place as planned. Extra efforts are being taken to clean and disinfect the center, and people who have cold or flu-like symptoms are asked to stay home.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and are prepared to reevaluate and make decisions based on current recommendations and changing conditions,” Executive Director Judy Morley wrote in a statement. “For now, the show must go on.”

The virus and the illness

The novel coronavirus 2019 is now technically known as SARS-CoV-2, according to the World Health Organization, and is a new member of a larger family of coronaviruses that includes viruses that cause the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, first characterized in 2003.

The illness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, and symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appearing two to 14 days after exposure.

Most cases of the COVID-19 disease are mild, according to CDC, but about 16% of people have a more severe illness that can require hospitalization and even lead to death. Older people and people with underlying health issues are most vulnerable.

The novel corononavirus, like colds or influenza, is spread by sneezes and coughs by infected people. And while there is no vaccine — and one won’t likely be available until 2021 — and no specific therapeutics exist, frequent and thorough hand washing, use of hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol, avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands, covering coughs and staying home when sick can help slow the spread of the disease.

More information is available on the Carroll County Health Department’s dedicated COVID-19 webpage, which also notes that there is still more seasonal flu circulating in the U.S. than the novel coronavirus and that it is not too late to get a flu shot.

The Maryland Department of Health is also publishing information online at health.maryland.gov/coronavirus.

The first cases of illness associated with the novel coronavirus were reported in December in Wuhan, China.

The rapid spread of the disease was alarming enough to public health officials that by Jan. 30 the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of “public health emergency of international concern.”

As of 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, there were over 118,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 disease globally, according to a map and dashboard created by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. It also reported over 4,200 deaths due to COVID-19 worldwide, while over 64,000 people were reported to have recovered. In the United States, there have been almost 1,000 confirmed cases and 28 deaths, 23 of which were in Washington state.

Hogan has responded by declaring a state of emergency and requiring health insurers to waive fees that could prevent people from getting tested for the COVID-19 disease if they fall ill.

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Some organizations have also chosen to modify business as usual in response to the outbreak.

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Towson University, Loyola University of Maryland, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Johns Hopkins University all announced Tuesday they would be cancelling classes at least for the rest of the week.

The public can prepare, the local health planner Kunz said, by taking precautions such as hand washing and checking sources of accurate information such as the health department’s COVID-19 webpage, at https://cchd.maryland.gov/covid-19/, for updates.

“We want people to know that the information is changing daily, but there are things they can do to prepare and prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses,” she said. “We encourage people to prepare, not panic. Everyone can take preventive actions, but people at higher risk (older adults and people with other chronic health conditions) should be most concerned about following public health guidance to prepare for and prevent COVID-19.”

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