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Monitoring coronavirus, Carroll County Health Department prepares response team, focuses on prevention

From left, Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer, Emergency Management Manager Valerie Hawkins, and health planner Maggie Kunz discuss plans to prepare for COVID-19 at the Board of County Commissioners meeting Thursday.
From left, Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer, Emergency Management Manager Valerie Hawkins, and health planner Maggie Kunz discuss plans to prepare for COVID-19 at the Board of County Commissioners meeting Thursday. (Mary Grace Keller)

The coronavirus disease that was first detected in China has spread to the United States, and even before the first cases were reported in Maryland on Thursday evening, the Carroll County Health Department has been readying the people who would respond to a potential outbreak in the area.

“The best thing that we can do is plan and be prepared," Ed Singer, county health officer, told the Board of County Commissioners at its Thursday meeting.

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The respiratory disease has sickened about 100,000 globally, as of Wednesday. Nationally, more than 220 people have been infected with COVID-19 and 12 people have died, almost all in Washington state.

In Maryland, the state’s first three cases were confirmed Thursday evening. Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement, “The patients, who contracted the virus while traveling overseas, are in good condition.” Thirty-one people had been tested in the state as of Thursday morning, with 17 reported to be negative.

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Symptoms of the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 include fever, cough, shortness of breath and pneumonia​​, according to the state health department.

In response to the situation, the county health department has a weekly conference call with the Maryland Department of Health, which is communicating with the CDC, according to Singer, and email communications are going back and forth as new information arises.

“There’s an extensive amount of coordination between the Centers for Disease Control, the local health departments and the Maryland Department of Health. It’s getting to the point where this is an all-hands-on deck type of thing," Singer said.

Valerie Hawkins, the county’s manager for emergency management, is working in tandem with Singer. In response to COVID-19, the county’s emergency operations center was raised to an enhanced level Thursday morning, Hawkins said, meaning staff are actively managing the situation.

Emergency management has also reinvigorated its emerging infectious diseases (EID) group, which was set up several years ago when the Ebola virus disease came about, according to Hawkins. The EID group includes firefighters, emergency medical services providers, members of law enforcement, the Humane Society of Carroll County, social services, schools, and special populations such as people in assisted living facilities.

Hawkins said the goal of the group is to make sure people have the information they need from credible sources.

The county health department activated its health department operations center (HDOC), Singer said. Maggie Kunz, health planner for the department, wrote in an email that activating the HDOC means specific staff are working together to coordinate internal planning and communication in response to the COVID-19 situation.

To keep information “credible, consistent, and coordinated,” Kunz said the health department is forming a virtual joint information center in which public information officers from across the county can communicate.

Singer told the commissioners that the health department has been getting calls about the disease from concerned citizens. Outside the meeting, Singer estimated they’ve received between six and 15 calls a day over the past month.

During the meeting, Singer said several groups have asked the health department to come speak about the disease, but it would be difficult to fulfill every request. Kunz suggested a Facebook Live forum as a solution.

Later this month, there will be a meeting among the county health department, emergency management and community partners to discuss the situation, according to Singer.

Hawkins hopes the county’s effort can “cut down on the social media rumor mill that has a tendency to crop up in situations like this.” Singer urged citizens to look to the websites of the county health department, the state health department, and the CDC. The Carroll County Health Department can be reached at 410-876-2152.

If someone suspects they have COVID-19 or came into contact with someone who might have it, Singer said, they should seek treatment through their health care provider, and the county health department will determine whether that person meets the criteria to be tested.

Singer emphasized the importance of washing hands with soap and water to prevent the spread of disease. He recommends people adopt the habit of washing their hands when they get home and encourage their children to do the same. If soap and water is not available, Singer said to use hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol.

“To put this in perspective though, there have been over 3,000 hospitalizations, 40 adult deaths, five pediatric deaths in Maryland related to flu" since October, Singer said. “While we want to be prepared and make sure we’re ready to deal with this emerging infection, it’s important to put it in perspective, and it’s important that we plan and that we do everything we can to protect our population.”

Singer reminded the commissioners that they have the power to adopt regulations to control the spread of disease, such as restricting large gatherings of people, though there is currently no indication that they will.

The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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