During the Highland County Health Department’s second live update on COVID-19 in Highland County on Wednesday, Health Commissioner Jared Warner and Public Information Officer Branden Jackman discussed the difference between quarantine and isolation, how the health department tracks those who may have been exposed to COVID-19, and how community members can protect themselves.
According to Warner, people who are showing symptoms are put into isolation while people who have been in contact with a confirmed case are placed in quarantine to see if they develop symptoms of the disease.
People remain in isolation for at least seven days and can’t be released until they’ve been symptom-free for 72 hours without using any medications, including Tylenol and ibuprofen.
When there’s a confirmed case in Highland County, Warner said health department nurses trained to track contacts who may have been exposed to a disease work with those in isolation to trace back what they did and whom they may have had close contact with 48 hours before they began showing symptoms. Any contacts are placed in quarantine.
“One of the questions we get a lot of is, ‘If I’ve been in contact with somebody who’s in quarantine, or if I’ve been in contact with someone who’s been in contact with someone in quarantine, have I been exposed?’” Warner said. “If you’re in direct contact with someone who’s in isolation, who’s actively sick, that’s when you get placed in quarantine and have restrictions. If you’re a contact of a person in quarantine or a contact of a contact, we don’t have any restrictions on you. Your risk-level is really no higher than anybody else in the community.”
Warner stressed that the factor that puts community members most at risk is close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
“Close contact is closer than six feet and not someone you pass on the sidewalk but someone who’s been in your office and working with you, someone who rode in the car with you,” Warner said. “That kind of close contact is what’s needed to spread this virus.”
Though those who have been in close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus will be contacted by health department nurses, Warner said officials won’t release information that specifies cases’ specific locations, including where they’ve traveled in the community.
“We don’t release a lot of specific information about any of the locations a patient has been because we want to protect their identity and protect them from some of the stigma that’s out there,” Warner said. “Just here in Highland County, we’ve seen some of the stigma associated with being placed in quarantine or being a confirmed case. Some of our cases have even talked about death threats and other threats of violence.”
The only times when the health department may release specific locations, Warner said, is when cases involving diseases with high infection rates appear in the community.
“To give you an example, measles has one of the highest infection rates of any known disease. For every one person who gets measles, 18 or 20 people, with no exposure or vaccination, are going to get that disease,” Warner said. “When we have potential measles cases, we’ll say, ‘If you’ve been to Walmart in the last 12 hours, you need to go home and watch for symptoms.’ Some diseases require that level of release, but the infectious nature of this disease, or the number of [additional cases] each case is likely to produce, is between two and two and a half people. It’s not as infectious, and it really requires close contact with someone in order to be exposed to this illness.”
But wearing cloth masks can help cut down on community spread.
“The CDC is still not suggesting that the public go out and buy surgical masks. What they’re talking about now are cloth masks,” Warner said. “Hospital and health care workers are wearing N95 masks so they can protect themselves from those people who are sick. The primary purpose of cloth masks when the CDC asks us to wear them out in public is because some of us are going to be carriers of this virus and not feel sick.”
Warner stressed that the CDC is not recommending that members of the public buy surgical or N95 masks, which would further contribute to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders and hospital workers.
Warner also discussed how the health department is working to ensure local businesses are following the governor’s stay-at-home orders. Warner said the health department has received between 200 and 300 phone calls, some of which were from businesses that wanted to talk through whether they were essential or not. Others were complaints alerting the department to businesses that were potentially not following safety guidelines created by the governor and the Ohio Department of Health.
“We have been reaching out to businesses. We wait for a complaint to come in, so we know where to focus our efforts. If someone is worried about the way a business is operating and we get that complaint, we reach out by phone, talk to that business and have them explain their process of separating people and keeping that six-foot distance rule and whether or not they have access to hand sanitizer,” Warner said. “We still work a lot with our businesses. We just talked to the chamber of commerce yesterday. We’re pushing out some information to businesses again just encouraging them that if they’re open, they have to follow these rules that are in place to protect their workers.”
When a community member asked whether or not it’s possible that COVID-19 was present in the Highland County community earlier than reported, Warner said there’s currently no way for Highland County officials to know that yet.
“We don’t know if this may have been around a little earlier than we expected because we don’t have access to the serial-object testing that tells you if you’ve been infected and recovered or not. There’s very limited access on that, and nothing on a wider scale that really lets people understand if they’ve already had it and if they’ve recovered,” Warner said. “It’s an important tool that we don’t have access to yet, but we want to. Right now, your doctor does not have the ability to have you tested and identify if you’ve already gotten the virus and recovered or not.”
Warner added that they hope to have access to such testing in the next 30 days or so.
Warner said he and other health department officials sit in on regular conference calls with local partners like Highland District Hospital and area nursing homes. They also speak two to three times a week with the Ohio Department of Health and its director, Dr. Amy Acton.
“In Highland County, we’re in a good place because all this planning has not just been going on for the past month but has really been going on for decades as we work on plans on a regular basis for how we’re going to handle a medical surge if we have a disease outbreak,” Warner said. “In Ohio, we’ve really seen that things have slowed down. Our numbers continue to be lower than what’s been projected, and a lot of that goes back to all of our health departments working hard behind the scenes, doing these isolations and quarantines and trying to control how quickly this illness moves through the community.”
To watch the live update in its entirety, visit the Highland County Health Department’s Facebook page.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.