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St. Louis Health Officials Tell Public To Brace For Coronavirus

St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fred Echols addresses media on Feb. 28, 2020. Echols says although there are no coronavirus cases in Missouri, residents should be prepared to prevent the virus.
File photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fred Echols says although there are no coronavirus cases in Missouri, residents should be prepared to prevent the virus' spread.

St. Louis-area health officials say they expect to see the new coronavirus arrive in St. Louis, and they want residents to be prepared. 

At a press conference Friday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said that the respiratory disease's arrival in the Midwest was not a question of "if" but of "when."

“We know how epidemics travel, those models are predictable,” said Page, a doctor. “It will be in our community at some point, and we will be prepared to treat it.”

Local and state health departments have been working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor the disease’s spread and screen patients for potential cases, Page said. 

The new virus known as COVID-19 emerged in China late last year. It causes respiratory symptoms similar to the common cold or flu and can be severe or mild. It has a mortality rate 20 times that of influenza, and scientists haven’t yet developed a vaccine for it. 

Earlier this week, doctors from the CDC warned that the spread of the virus beyond China to countries such as Italy and South Korea indicated the disease would soon make its way to the U.S.

If someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the health department could quarantine them or otherwise limit their movement, Page said.

Doctors had screened 20 people in the St. Louis region who were showing symptoms, but no cases of the virus have been confirmed in Missouri, St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fred Echols said Friday.

Illinois health officials identified two cases there in January. One of those people had recently traveled to China and had spread it to her husband. That couple was quarantined, and the state has not identified any positive cases since. 

“This is a serious challenge for public health officials,” Page said. “Every time there’s a new disease, a new process we don’t understand, we have to adapt, but the fundamentals are the same.”

The steps to preventing the spread of the virus are exactly the same as preventing the flu: washing hands, covering sneezes and coughs and staying home sick, he said. If someone suspects they could have the virus, they should avoid other people and call a clinic right away, Page said.

Both Page and Echols emphasized that people shouldn’t panic. For now, people in Missouri are unlikely to contract the coronavirus. 

The coronavirus is from a family of diseases that have been around for years, Echols said. The region has dealt with such viruses before. 

“What we’ll more than likely see is a recurrence of what happened with H1N1 years ago,” he said, referring to the influenza virus that surfaced in 2009. “Initially, it was seen as a novel virus but then became a part of the group of viruses we see annually.”

Echols also emphasized that fear of the virus could lead people to discriminate against Asian people in St. Louis.

“People, including those of Asian descent who have not recently traveled to China or have been in contact with a person who has confirmed a suspected case of COVID-19, are not at greater risk of spreading or acquiring [the virus] than other Americans,” he said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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