As cases of COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus, continue to be confirmed in Minnesota, schools, senior homes and county public health officials are preparing.
The Eastern Carver County School District has established a preparedness plan, and other institutions are following state and national response guidelines.
“We’re doing everything we can to be prepared and responsive,” said Richard Scott, deputy division director with Carver County’s Health & Human Services.
The second diagnosed case of COVID-19 involved a Carver County resident. The resident is expected to recover, and the Minnesota Department of Health anticipates the person came in contact with less than 20 people.
The MDH said COVID-19 likely transfers from person to person via cough or sneeze droplets.
Scott said the second confirmed person traveled to Europe and returned with symptoms and a positive COVID-19 test over the weekend. They are in self-quarantine in their home, and those who came in contact with the person are asked to stay at home for two weeks.
An epidemiologist with MDH is interviewing the person for contacts they may have exposed the virus to, Scott said. Beyond those people notified to stay isolated, he said the general public is not currently at high risk.
“All the people that need to know will be notified,” Scott said. Those who cared for and tracked the Carver County individual will also be recommended for isolation.
The MDH puts coronaviruses in a large family of viruses, estimated to cause about a third of all common cold cases. The most-contracted coronaviruses cause “mild to moderate illness” in people.
COVID-19 has not been found in people before, the MDH said. Health organizations are still unsure of severity and contagiousness.
MDH said the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, with a potential link to a seafood and animal market.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists older adults, and those with chronic medical conditions like diabetes and lung disease, to be at a higher risk of catching the virus.
Officials with Auburn Homes & Services, which houses older residents in Chaska and Waconia, said it is actively preparing for possible cases of the virus.
In conjunction with MDH and CDC recommendations, staff said they are educating employees, residents and families on symptoms and encouraging good hygiene.
“We are advising visitors, vendors and others to avoid visiting our communities if they feel ill or have come in contact with someone who is being screened for possible COVID-19 infection,” said Alicia Hilk, assisted living administrator with Auburn. “These precautions are vital to helping us avoid and minimize the possible spread of this virus.”
An Auburn press release stated infection control policies and procedures are “in place and are being updated and evaluated” as information develops.
Parents received an March 9 email from the Eastern Carver County School District, updating families on the district’s plan amid the second confirmed case in the state.
“Right now, we have no reason to believe there is any direct impact to Eastern Carver County Schools,” said Superintendent Clint Christopher, in the letter. “It is important to communicate to children that, like many illnesses, most people who get sick will recover and be just fine.”
Christopher reminded families to wash hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, stay home when sick, and avoid contact with those showing flu-like symptoms.
The district reminded families to be specific about symptoms when reporting a school absence due to illness.
“This helps us track types of illnesses more effectively,” the letter read.
The district has an updated coronavirus preparedness plan put together by a committee. It reminds families that children are not more susceptible to the virus based on age and that schools are not required to screen students or staff.
“As a gentle reminder about not targeting individuals or groups to assure there is no stigma associating to individuals or groups,” the plan read.
The district plan said it is following MDH recommendations for schools, including what to do with both isolated and widespread cases in the community.
School closures are included in the plan if the virus were to effect too many students or staff. A complete preparedness plan can be found at the district’s website.
Scott said Carver County Public Health is setting up a call center and command center to coordinate messaging between health entities. The county is also holding frequent internal briefings so everyone is on the same page, he said.
County public health staff have been “actively working” with partners like the MDH and CDC to prepare for more confirmed cases in the state, Scott said. Outreach with hospitals and schools has been part of that.
Communication is key within local hospitals, too.
Lisa Steinbauer, marketing and communications director with Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, said they’re also following state and national protocol to prepare for a potential outbreak.
“We are following their screening protocols and ensuring that we’re consistent in applying those protocols in our hospitals and clinics,” Steinbauer said.
She said she cannot comment on specific safety protocols, but that the center is “very consistent” with MDH and CDC recommendations.
One of the most important things people can do, Steinbauer said, is to stay at home if sick.
Some organizations, including the Chanhassen-based global religious institution Eckankar, are canceling events. Eckankar has canceled its annual spring seminar scheduled for early April in light of COVID-19.
Scott said anyone experiencing respiratory symptoms like a cough, fever or shortness of breath, should call their healthcare provider. It’s important to stay at home if symptoms are mild and not to enter the community until being symptom-free for 24 hours without medication, he said.
“We’re still in the middle of our flu season,” Scott said, noting the two viruses could be confused. “Sometimes symptoms are very similar.”
Other symptoms of COVID-19 include muscle aches, headaches, a sore throat or diarrhea, according to the MDH. The CDC believes symptoms of COVID-19 appear two to 14 days after exposure.
Scott said the severity and death rate of the virus is difficult to determine.
“In order to calculate that, we need to know the total number of cases,” he said. “That has been an ever-evolving number because our availability to test has been expanded.”
Health departments say they will continue monitoring and exploring COVID-19, how it spreads, and how big of a risk it is to Minnesotans.
“There is much more to learn about how this novel coronavirus spreads, and how common it is to have mild disease or severe disease,” the MDH website states. “Investigations are ongoing.”