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Harford health, school officials prepare for coronavirus as public concerns increase

Harford County Public Schools and the county’s health department are fielding an increasing number of calls and questions about the coronavirus outbreak from “anxious parents and residents,” according to a letter from Superintendent Sean Bulson.

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Harford County or in Maryland, Bulson wrote in the letter sent to parents Wednesday, but noted “this is a rapidly changing situation, and one which we are monitoring closely.”

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Officials with the Harford County Health Department and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, which operates the county’s two hospitals in Bel Air and Havre de Grace, also have been preparing should the disease appear in the community.

“Please know that, as we do in all health-related cases, we are working closely together and receiving additional guidance from the Harford County Health Department, the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” Bulson wrote in the letter, which is also posted on the school system’s website.

On Tuesday, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans should begin preparations as the coronavirus will soon begin spreading in communities across the United States.

"It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a news briefing.

“The 2019 novel strain at the center of the current issue is a new one and has a more severe impact in terms of respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. The CDC is still studying how the virus spreads, though it is thought at this point to be spread much like the flu,” Bulson wrote in his letter.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent strain of the coronavirus known as COVID-19.

No “laboratory-confirmed” cases have developed in Maryland so far, Molly Mraz, spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department, stated in an email Thursday. People can visit the health department’s web page on coronavirus, https://harfordcountyhealth.com/coronavirus, for more information, according to Mraz.

People can visit a University of Maryland Medical System website on the virus, too, https://www.umms.org/coronavirus, according to Upper Chesapeake Health spokesperson Martha Mallonee.

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Bulson encourages, in his letter, good hygiene to help limit the spread of the virus in schools, including thoroughly washing hands with soap and water, covering your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or inside your elbow, and staying home when you are sick — not returning to work or school until fever-free without the use of medication for at least 24 hours.

Bulson also notes that custodial staff will continue to regularly clean classrooms and common areas, as the virus may live on surfaces such as desks and doorknobs.

“We will be continuing our partnerships with public health experts and updating you when new relevant information is available,” he writes.

Health officials preparing

The county health department is working “very closely” with the Maryland Department of Health, as state officials are providing reports to local health departments and hospitals on a weekly basis, Mraz stated in her email.

She noted that Harford County leaders have done extensive planning for pandemics, going back to before the global H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 and 2010.

“The county has previously done extensive pandemic planning with all partners involved prior to H1N1, which resulted in a comprehensive Pandemic Plan for the county,” said Mraz, who added that officials are updating the plan with a local Pandemic Checklist.

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That checklist is expected to assist officials by “ensuring all steps of the plan are taken into consideration” during phases of a pandemic, according to Mraz.

“We intend to share the Pandemic Checklist with community partners and to assist with any pandemic planning updates they would like to make,” she wrote.

Upper Chesapeake Health officials as well as colleagues in their parent organization, the University of Maryland Medical System, “are focused on ensuring our patients, families and team members are protected in the event COVID-19 reaches Maryland,” Mallonee wrote in an emailed statement Thursday.

Mallonee also noted that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maryland. Hospital patients and employees with a related travel history are being screened and monitored, though.

“We are monitoring the rapidly-changing developments in real time,” she stated.

The medical system and its affiliates have set up Hospital Incident Command Systems. The incident command systems have “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,” Mallonee wrote.

Upper Chesapeake officials also are in regular contact with Harford County health and emergency operations leaders to monitor the spread of the virus and provide information to the community, according to Mallonee.

“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,” she stated.

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