As health organizations monitor the spread and severity of the COVID-19 outbreak on a minute-to-minute basis, local health departments and schools are taking steps to ensure the safety of residents and students.
There were 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Monday, Feb. 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of them in Wisconsin.
In Pierce County, health officials are practicing communication and coordination efforts.
Though Pierce County is not home to a hospital, Pierce County Public Health Director AZ Snyder said the attention COVID-19 has garnered is an opportunity to practice communicating with hospitals in surrounding counties.
“Infection preventionists (in hospitals) have protocols in place to contact us if a case comes up, protocols include notifying public health with after-hours contact information should there be a case of category 1 diseases which require immediate notifications,” Snyder said. “We’re following CDC guidance and have reviewed communication that is sent out to partners.”
Category 1 diseases include COVID-19 along with other well-known illnesses like measles, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis and cholera.
For daily updates on the COVID-19 update, visit the World Health Organization website and social media accounts.
One partner working closely with the health department is the University of Wisconsin-River Falls international students office. The University of Wisconsin-River Falls authorized a “soft launch” of its emergency operations center in January in response to COVID-19 concerns.
Joe Kmiech, the university’s chief information officer who also leads the emergency management team, said an awareness campaign has been the focus of the effort. Students and others on campus have been instructed to become vigilant hand washers. Flu shots were also recommended.
As part of the awareness effort, residence hall advisers were tasked with connecting with students to remind them to keep open minds when they see international students wearing surgical masks.
“People will interpret that in different ways,” Kmiech said, but added those students wearing masks generally come from countries that encourage masks for protection from others — not because they are infected.
He said procedures were established for students who feel they’re being excluded on campus in response to COVID-19. No such reports have been received, Kmiech said.
The emergency team also assessed whether anyone on campus traveled to Wuhan, China, which is considered the epicenter of the outbreak. No one had traveled to the city, Kmiech said.
St. Croix County Public Health Nurse Kelli Engen said the county does not have specific protocols for COVID-19, but does for public health emergencies and communicable diseases.
That goes into effect when someone is suspected of an infection, including COVID-19. Engen said one person in St. Croix County contacted their hospital about COVID-19 concerns after recent travel to China. She said that case triggered the protocol and an investigation. The person was found to not be infected with COVID-19, she said.
Kris Keller, an epidemiologist with Washington County Public Health, said the Minnesota Department of Health would take point on the investigation should an outbreak of COVID-19 occur locally.
The state would mainly look to the county for help in assisting residents with “essential services,” like picking up prescriptions or groceries for people too sick to do it themselves.
If the state health department were to be overwhelmed with cases, a county department may step in and help, Keller said.
Christine Lees, Dakota County Public Health’s disease prevention and emergency preparedness supervisor, said the county has a number of plans in place for dealing with novel outbreaks.
“We have experience through responding to measles outbreaks and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic in how to conduct isolation and quarantine, as well as how to organize large public vaccination clinics if needed,” Lees said in an email.
Local public health departments follow protocols that the Minnesota Department of Health helps develop and can assist with tasks such as ongoing isolation and quarantine, Lees said.
The virus was named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, an abbreviation for coronavirus disease 2019. Coronavirus is "a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases," according to the World Health Organization.
There were 79,331 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide as of Monday, the vast majority of them in China, according to a WHO situation report. The virus is responsible for at least 2,595 deaths in China and 23 deaths elsewhere in the world.
RiverTown Multimedia reporters Hannah Black, Rachel Helgeson and Michael Longaecker contributed to this story.