The two Miami University students who were isolated due to concerns they may have contracted novel coronavirus during recent trips to China have tested negative for the virus, the Ohio Department of Health announced Sunday.
Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner, Highland County Health Department Emergency Response Coordinator Brittane Dance, and infectious disease nurse Barb Eaglin spoke to The Times-Gazette about emergency plans in place should coronavirus come to Highland County and the ways those plans are used each flu season.
“There are a lot of community ties to Miami University and that area. If we would’ve had positive cases there, we would’ve worked with their local health department to identify if anybody from Highland County had come in contact with the students in question,” Warner said. “Our job would’ve been to track down those people, check them for symptoms, talk to them about their potential exposure, set them up on a monitoring process. Barb would’ve been out twice a day, in person, saying, ‘How are you guys feeling? Check your temperature, tell me if you have a fever,’ and just having that ongoing contact for 14 days until we’re in the clear. That’s stuff that we do already on different types of diseases and are really familiar with.”
Not only do Highland County public health officials coordinate with local agencies, like the Highland County Emergency Management Agency, during potential outbreaks, but Warner said they also work with officials from other counties.
“Diseases don’t recognize political boundaries. Coronavirus is new, and it can be a little scary, but with the public health system in place, we deal with these things on a daily basis,” Warner said. “If something is going on in one of our counties, all our neighboring counties know about it, and we work together right away. If I found myself in over my head, I’ve got 200 public health nurses a phone call away who can come in and help us. We have regional epidemiology groups that meet every other month to talk about how we’re going to work together if something like this happens.”
Warner said the Highland County Health Department was in contact with public health officials in Butler County, where Miami University is located, while they waited for the students’ test results. Warner and his team were standing by in case officials in Butler County needed help, and it would be the same if there was a case in Highland County, Warner said.
”We have a great system in place with great partnerships and a lot of resources,” Warner said. “If coronavirus does show up in Southwest Ohio, we feel really prepared to walk out and meet it.”
Warner said emergency plans have been in place in Highland County since the 2001 anthrax letter attacks encouraged government officials to push funding for such measures towards local health departments.
“Ever since then, we’ve developed plans and policies for dealing with potential disease outbreaks and biological attacks, but really what we spend most of our time working on are day-to-day communicable diseases — talking to people who test positive for something and tracking their contacts,” Warner said. “We’ve kind of got a mix of two worlds here: coronavirus is the new emerging infectious disease, and we’ve got emergency response plans for that, but it’s really going to follow a lot of the same procedures and protocols we have in place for normal communicable disease work. That’s where Brittane and Barb both come in.”
As Highland County’s health emergency response coordinator, Dance works with local government officials and emergency response teams to prepare for the worst.
“We have an emergency-response plan, it’s an all-hazard approach to dealing with emergencies. It goes through details of communication, talking to all our partners, dealing with the public,” Dance said. “Throughout our county, we have five predetermined locations as points of dispensing, or PODs, so if we needed to vaccinate the entire county immediately, we could go to any of the locations and give the county the pills they need to protect themselves and their family members.”
If someone tests positive for a communicable disease, nurses like Eaglin are on the front lines.
“If we had someone who tested positive, we would notify the Ohio Department of Health,” Eaglin said. “We would interview that person and get in contact with their contacts to see who needs to be quarantined and for how long.”
Warner said Eaglin and other Highland County public health nurses are good at digging into details about those who may have potentially come in contact with a contagious disease.
“That’s really the key factor in what we do with communicable disease and slowing its spread through the community,” Warner said. “We educate the person who has the disease, reach out to anybody they have been in contact with who could’ve potentially been exposed depending on the disease, and educate them. In that process, we really eliminate how diseases spread through our community. We do that all the time with Hepatitis A and B and tuberculosis. In 2018, I know Barb did over 500 diseases. There’s a lot of that that happens behind the scenes, and that’s the reason we don’t have widespread disease outbreaks like we had in the past because public health is there in the background, making those contacts, educating and tracking down those people.”
When public health officials find someone who has potentially been exposed to a disease, Warner said the health department and the person become partners.
“In some cases, they have no idea that they’ve potentially been exposed to something contagious; they’re thrilled to hear from us because we’re telling them, ‘Hey, you may have been exposed to whatever disease. Here’s what you need to watch for, and here’s what to do if you get a symptom, here’s who to call, here’s my phone number,’” Warner said. “Usually people are thrilled to hear from us because we’re giving them information they didn’t have, and we’re helping them figure out what to do with whatever it is they’re suddenly facing.”
Though person-to-person transmission of coronavirus has only been seen in one U.S. case between a husband and wife who were in close contact for an extended period of time, Warner said public health officials across the country are still taking precautions.
“Right now, every case that we’ve had in Ohio has been travel-associated. There was one case that was person-to-person in the U.S., but it was between a husband and wife, so we’ve not had any sort of spread in Ohio or the U.S. that’s given us any cause for concern,” Warner said. “We are going to continue to see people returning from China and other areas that have been impacted, so this is something that’s going to be on the radar for quite a while. We’ll continue to watch it. There’s a lot of work going on right now at our international airports to identify people who have travel history to those impacted areas and give them information and educational material they need and to connect with the health departments where those people live.”
Those health departments would then follow the same procedures local health departments would use.
These same procedures are used every flu season.
“We’ve been working on flu shot clinics, which we’ve had throughout the county. That’s something we use all of this stuff on a daily basis,” Dance said. “We work with different groups throughout our county. Jared and I were just meeting with people from the city of Hillsboro. We go to all kinds of meetings and just tell them what we’ve learned based on certain communicable diseases and what’s going on in our county to get that information out there. Last week with the coronavirus, Jared and I were in contact with our Emergency Management Agency, local law enforcement, the fire department, schools, the county commissioners, and media. We are constantly sending out information just to keep everyone who needs to know what’s going on in the loop. Our Facebook page and our website are updated all the time with what we’re doing or what’s going on here.”
Warner and Dance encouraged members of the public to stay informed and to use the same precautions they would for the flu.
“A lot of people are using coronavirus to say, ‘Hey, we’re watching coronavirus very closely, but there are 11 cases in the U.S. — the flu is going to kill 10,000 people this year. Let’s pay attention to the flu. The same precautions you take that keep you healthy from flu will keep you healthy from coronavirus.”
“The flu’s still out there,” Dance added. “Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough. If you’re sick, stay home from work. If your children are sick, keep them home from school.”
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.