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The Johns Hopkins Hospital staff train for a potential coronavirus epidemic.

Behind the passcode-protected doors of the Biocontainment Unit on the eighth floor of Johns Hopkins Hospital, the hallway and rooms are empty except for three nurses holding protective gear they just removed according to a strict protocol.

Medical staff has been training here nonstop since the unit was created in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak and are ready to care for seriously ill patients from the coronavirus.

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If there are any in the multistate Mid-Atlantic region, and they are particularly sick, they will come here. So far, there are just five cases in the United States, out of more than 6,000, mostly in China. There is one under investigation in Maryland.

But officials in health care, education and business that have international populations are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus and stay out of this unit.

Dr. Brian Garibaldi, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital biocontainment unit, glances at medical staff who completed their training session at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Tuesday.
Dr. Brian Garibaldi, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital biocontainment unit, glances at medical staff who completed their training session at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Tuesday. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

“For now the risks are probably low," said Dr. Brian Garibaldi, medical director of the Hopkins Biocontainment Unit. But anything could happen, he said. "Everyone here and across the country is preparing.”

Many faculty members and students at Hopkins travel to and from China, according to Dr. Lisa Maragakis, the unit’s executive director and senior director of infection prevention for the Hopkins health system.

Hopkins has developed guidance that calls for the travelers to be screened when they arrive and monitor themselves, reporting any symptoms that develop for 14 days.

The hospital has plans in place to maintain normal clinical operations as it accommodates infected patients, should they come, she said.

Area hospitals and local and state health departments, as well as BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, are coordinating with state agencies, and the State Emergency Operations Center is on alert, according to a statement from Gov. Larry Hogan. State health officials also issued guidance to doctors and other medical practitioners.

Hogan said there was no immediate need for concern, but officials were prepared. He encouraged residents to stay informed about the changing situation.

“The state is taking every precaution to prepare and mobilize whatever resources are necessary to address the coronavirus," he said in the statement. “Our state government team is in close communication with federal officials and will continue to remain so on an ongoing basis. Maryland is fortunate to have some of the top health research facilities in the world, and I am confident in our state’s ability to respond to any potential cases of the virus, and I expect that we will be a leader in developing treatments and perhaps even a vaccine.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, joined 30 other senators in signing a letter to U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar that calls on the agency to share information publicly as more is learned about the virus. The letter also asks what is being done now at the federal level to keep the public safe, how health workers are being prepared and what is needed from Congress. The senators also said they find the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to domestic and international public health programs troubling.

Area businesses with operations in China, including the Hunt Valley spice maker McCormick & Co., said they were abiding by international travel restrictions. McCormick has three plants in China, including a one in Wuhan, where the virus began and remains centered.

Colleges and universities in the region have been sending staff and students information this week about how to protect themselves from viruses or seek medical attention when needed.

Morgan State University, McDaniel College and the University of Maryland Baltimore, for example, said they are in touch with local health officials and have sent information on tips to staying healthy to their communities. St. Mary’s College of Maryland also expects to send out information soon.

The University of Maryland, College Park announced Wednesday on its website that until further notice it is not authorizing travel to China and is suspending Education Abroad programming in China for undergraduates for spring 2020.

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St. Mary’s canceled its study abroad program at Fudan University in China for the spring semester, according to Michael Bruckler, a college spokesman, who added that the “college is prepared to take further steps if needed.”

Goucher College, which has many students traveling abroad each semester, said it is “closely monitoring the coronavirus outbreak,” said Tara de Souza, a school spokeswoman. Goucher has been in communication with Baltimore County health officials.

“To our knowledge, none of our faculty members have recently traveled to or from China. We do currently have students abroad ... and the college will stay in close contact with them as the situation develops globally,” de Souza said.

McDaniel College has no professors or students traveling in China and its one Chinese student stayed in the United States over the January term, said Cheryl Knauer, McDaniel’s spokeswoman.

Jay Perman, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a doctor in the affiliated health system, sent out advice from the CDC to all campuses.

All the colleges and universities are asking students and faculty to seek medical care right away if they have traveled to China in the past 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough or difficulty breathing.

There is also an emphasis on preventing the spread of influenza, which is not a coronavirus but is currently widespread in Maryland and the rest of the country. Health officials say it is not too late to get a flu shot.

Those with the flu would not require a room in the Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, but Garibaldi said the training that has been going on there has informed infectious disease prevention. Crews learn how to properly clean rooms to prevent the spread of bugs, for example.

Those who have trained at Hopkins in everything from proper waste disposal to safe methods of disrobing from contamination suits also have helped other area hospitals prepare for infectious disease cases.

And the Hopkins unit is prepared if there are coronavirus patients who are especially sick and contagious. The unit is one of 10 around the nation in the network created in response to Ebola.

Garibaldi said no one is sure yet how contagious this virus is, or whether people can pass the virus before they have symptoms.

“The situation is fluid,” he said.

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But he’s hopeful his unit’s beds remain empty.

Staff writer Lorraine Mirabella contributed to this article.

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