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Western PA Health Systems Say They ‘Remain Vigilant,’ Ready For Coronavirus

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Though it's possible that coronavirus is circulating undetected in western Pennsylvania, the region’s largest health care system said on Tuesday that it hasn’t needed to test any patients at any of its facilities for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“We remain vigilant,” said UPMC emergency medicine physician, Dr. Donald Yealy. “We are proactively trying to find cases. We’re not waiting for them to become one in front of us and become obvious.”

There have been no confirmed coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania, though the state Department of Health warns it poses a “serious risk” to public health.

Allegheny Health Network, the Pittsburgh region’s other major health care provider, said it too is on alert for potential COVID-19 cases, which has symptoms similar to those of the flu.

AHN and UPMC said they have enhanced patient screenings and protocols. If someone suspects they have coronavirus, they’re encouraged to call before visiting an emergency room, urgent care, or doctor’s office

Upon arriving, AHN infectious disease physician Dr. Tom Walsh said a patient would be given a face mask.

“[Then they would be put] into a private room away from the other persons,” said Walsh. “We would then be able to have all our appropriate personal protective equipment onto the health care workers,” who would then gather more medical history.

If it's determined that the patient needs to be tested for coronavirus, samples would be sent to the state's lab in Chester County.

To prevent the spread of disease, members of the public are being advised to thoroughly wash their hands, frequently clean high-touch surfaces, to avoid shaking hands, and practice good cough and sneeze etiquette. Public health officials said healthy people do not need face masks and are told not to wear them, or hoard them.

“You, A., are not well trained in how to wear the mask appropriately to make wearing the mask effective,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC’s director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology. “B., you might be more likely to touch your face, and after having touched surfaces that could be contaminated, then increase your risk of acquiring [coronavirus].”

UPMC and Allegheny Health Network both said they have sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment, in case of a coronavirus outbreak.  

Allegheny County Health Department epidemiologist Dr. Kristen Mertz said a worst-case scenario for the region would be similar to what occurred inWuhan, China, where a large percentage of people became ill. But she doesn’t think that will happen.

“We are more prepared for the virus now, they had the disadvantage of being the first place where it broke out,” said Mertz. “We also have the advantage of delay. In that China is now doing some clinical trials of some antiviral medications…that should also help lower some of the severe outcomes if some of those drugs prove to be effective.”

Most people who become ill with COVID-19 won’t need hospitalization. Instead they will be told to self-isolate at home until the illnesses passes.

To prepare for possible local outbreaks, Pittsburghers are advised to make sure their pantries and freezers are well stocked, and that they have contingency plans for caring for sick family members. Workplaces are told to consider telecommuting if there are local outbreaks.  

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.