LUMBERTON — Be aware, take preventative measures, but there’s no reason to panic.
That’s the main message from a local health leader concerning the coronavirus.
There are no cases in North Carolina and only five confirmed cases in the United States, Bill Smith, Robeson County Department of Public Health director, said Tuesday.
Still health departments across the state are keeping their eyes on the new respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, China, and are getting prepared for the highly infectious disease. As of Tuesday, the disease had killed 132 people and infected more than 6,000 on the mainland and abroad.
The threat prompted local health departments to take part in a conference call on Tuesday with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Smith said.
“To get everyone on the same page,” he said.
Health departments are taking precautionary actions and have adopted watch stances similar to those taken during the last episode involving a disease with a high mortality rate, he said.
That was in 2014, when Ebola was found in the United States.
“In many senses it’s very similar to what we did with Ebola,” Smith said.
Residents of Robeson County need to know that the coronavirus has many flu-like symptoms, he said. But there is a big difference between the flu and the coronavirus.
“It does have a high mortality rate,” Smith said. “That’s what sets it apart.”
But Robeson County doesn’t have the risk factors shared by more urban counties, such as Wake and Mecklenburg, he said. Those factors are large populations of people from China and high rates of travel by residents.
To help prevent the spread of the disease by people coming from China, screening is being conducted at 20 airports around the United States, Smith said.
“None of them are in North Carolina,” he said.
There recently was a suspected case detected at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The state Health Department reported Saturday that the passenger arriving at the airport did not have the coronavirus.
Smith urges Robeson County residents who suspect they may have the virus to call a health-care provider and describe their symptoms and detail their recent travel history.
“Let them talk you through it,” he said.
Don’t go to a health facility unless told to do so by the health-care provider, Smith said. This reduces the risk of spreading a virus of any type while sitting in a waiting area. The health-care provider can alert the health facility so it can be ready to receive a possibly infected patient and prevent the spread of the virus among patients waiting to receive care.
According to the CDC’s website, five people in the United States had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Monday, the lasted data available. Thirty-two people had tested negative and 73 tests were pending. The pending tests include specimens received and awaiting testing, and specimens that had not yet arrived at the CDC.
Southeastern Regional Medical Center is staying on top of the coronavirus situation, said Dr. Obiefuna Okoye, Southeastern Health’s Infectious Diseases medical director. Southeastern Health is receiving guidance and information from the Robeson County Health Department, the state DHHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Southeastern Health continues to follow the guidance of the health department, North Carolina Department of Health and the CDC,” said Okoye, who is affiliated with Carolina Infectious Diseases.
To date, no special preventative steps are being taken, he said. The guidance given is to treat and relieve the symptoms exhibited by patients.
There is no need for residents to take any unusual or special preventative measures to avoid contracting the coronavirus, he said. They should take the same steps they would take to avoid getting the flu.
“A lot is still not known about this virus, but the CDC still recommends similar preventive measures,” Okoye said.
The state DHHS recommends the following steps to avoid contracting the coronavirus:
— Wash hands frequently with soap and water, and for at least 20 seconds each time.
— Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
— Avoid close contact with people who are ill.
— Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
— Do not reuse tissue after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose.
— Clean and disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched.
People who are experiencing symptoms such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath and have visited Wuhan or had close contact with someone who is suspected to be infected with the coronavirus in the past 14 days should seek immediate medical attention, according to the DHHS.
The virus is most commonly spread from an infected person to others through coughing and sneezing, close personal contact, and touching your nose, mouth or eyes before washing your hands, according to the N.C. Health Department.
A climb in the number of Robeson County residents seen in public wearing antiviral face masks points to growing concern. The increasing use of the masks is being noted at local pharmacies.
“We’ve seen more patients coming in wearing them,” said Dawnn Flowers, a pharmacist at Walgreens on Fayetteville Road in Lumberton.
Flowers said she doesn’t know enough about the coronavirus to be able to say if the mask will protect the wearer.
“Wearing a face mask could probably help,” said Brandon Bolton, pharmacy manager at Drugs America Pharmacy.
About one of every 50 customers at the pharmacy located on East 24th Street in Lumberton is seen wearing an antiviral mask, he said. But a lot of people wear the masks during flu season, and the masks do help prevent the spread of the flu.
Masks are “more beneficial” for people who are already sick and susceptible to more sickness, Bolton said. They are not as beneficial for healthy people.
As for the coronavirus, a mask “could probably help,” Bolton said.
“It is a serious threat,” he said. “As of right now, I don’t think it’s a threat for Americans.”