'Low risk' of coronavirus in state, health officials say

Oklahoma State Health Department

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahomans are at "low risk" for the coronavirus, which started in China and has spread around the globe, state health officials said during a Wednesday press conference.

Officials with Oklahoma State Department of Health discussed updates on the coronavirus and the ways it may impact Oklahoma residents. Gary Cox, state health commissioner, told reporters that Oklahomans are at low risk for the virus, but said it was important to discuss how the Health Department is handling the virus and the information Oklahomans need to know to protect themselves.

"It is a very serious epidemic in China and it's rapidly evolving and changing every day," Cox said. "As far as the risk factors for Oklahomans, it is low risk for any single individual currently in Oklahoma. We don't want Oklahomans to be fearful, but we are taking it seriously in public health, and in public health preparation is key. That's what we will be focusing on going forward."

The coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, and there are more than 6,100 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 130 deaths as of Wednesday, Cox said. There are five confirmed cases of the virus in four states in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control.

Cox said there are two people under investigation for the virus in Oklahoma, and the samples have been sent to CDC in Atlanta to undergo further testing. Cox said state health officials are waiting on the results for those tests, and expect to have them Thursday.

OSDH has issued several advisories statewide to health care providers, Cox said, and an epidemiologist is on call to field calls from health care providers and others. Cox said there are preliminary plans to form a multi-agency task force to help develop contingency plans for the state if the situation warrants that action.

"Basically, this is planning and thinking through scenarios and situations should we have an outbreak here in Oklahoma. Of course, we always want to plan for an event like that and we hope that it never happens here in Oklahoma. But preparation is a key, planning is a key, and want to get a broad group of stakeholders together to think through different situations and scenarios that may or may not come our way, and hopefully not."

OSDH has issued several guidelines and warnings for Oklahoma residents in recent days. OSDH is "strongly advising" residents against all non-essential or personal travel plans to China. Residents who recently have returned from China should be aware of any flu-like symptoms they are experiencing, such as fever, runny nose, shortness of breath and a dry cough.

Several entities throughout the state have issued their own travel restrictions and guidelines, including the University of Oklahoma. In a letter from Interim President Joseph Harroz, OU has suspended all university-related travel to China for its Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City and its Tulsa campus. The university also is strongly discouraging any travel plans to China for its Norman campus.

"All individuals who have traveled to any part of China are required to undergo a medical screening before return to campus is permitted," Harroz stated in his letter. "Individuals committed to travel to China not otherwise suspended are required to be in touch with their college dean or administrative vice president and the Provost's Office prior to making plans."

Laurence Burnsed, state epidemiologist, said health care providers have begun asking patients with these symptoms about any recent travels to China in an effort to identify "persons under investigation." Burnsed said they are identified by meeting criteria such as these symptoms, recent travel to Wuhan, China, and if they have been in close contact with any confirmed case.

If any health care providers encounter patients they believe meet these criteria, they will contact OSDH to begin an investigation that includes collecting specimens to test for the virus, and isolating the victim. The investigation will include consulting with the person and any other close personal contacts that were at risk of exposure, Burnsed said.

"(This) is core public health practice that we put in place and something we do for other diseases like measles, tuberculosis and pertussis," Burnsed said.

If they can be treated at home, the person will be isolated from anyone living in close proximity and will be in daily contact with health officials. Burnsed said the two patients currently being tested in Oklahoma met the criteria but have not required hospitalization, and they are two "unrelated" individuals.

OSDH would not release any details about the names or location of the two in Oklahoma, but said the investigation is ongoing to determine if there are any people with the virus in the state.

"If there is a need to notify the general public about a potential risk in a public setting, then that would be a situation where we would put out more details in regards to public places the person might have frequented and the specific times of day and dates that they were there, and what symptoms to look out for if we're trying to reach people that we could not actually get ahold of.

"To ensure confidentiality, if we can identity all individuals that were exposed in a certain setting, such as a public gathering or even a private gathering, then we do not release that information if we can notify all individuals and know that we've reached them. If it's something broader where it's uncertain that we've identified all people, that is a time where we may have to put out a specific advisory to the public to be on the lookout for potential symptoms."

In the meantime, health officials urge residents to continue normal precautions, such as washing their hands and covering their mouths while coughing or sneezing. Health officials also said flu season is ongoing and it is not too late for residents to get their flu shot.

Crittenden writes for the Norman Transcript.

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