Inside the nerve center of Delaware’s coronavirus response

Governor John Carney visits the State Health Operations Center on Monday. March 16, 2020, in Smyrna, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Governor John Carney visits the State Health Operations Center on Monday. March 16, 2020, in Smyrna, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

There’s a flurry of activity on the second floor of the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill. Dozens of rooms here in Smyrna in central Delaware have been transformed into the nerve center of Delaware’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The State Health Operations Center has gradually increased staffing to about 75 people now. Some here are busy answering calls to the state’s coronavirus helpline (1-866-408-1899), providing answers to hundreds of people wondering what to do or where to go if they think they’ve been infected with COVID-19. Others coordinate how to communicate the latest public health information.

At the end of the floor, there’s a large conference room that serves as the Department of Health and Social Services’ war room, with screens displaying heat maps of where the virus has spread across the region and where operations personnel coordinate the state’s response.

Governor John Carney elbow bumps a worker while visiting the State Health Operations Center on Monday. March 16, 2020, in Smyrna, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

“It’s been a long week or so with a situation that’s evolving on a day by day, almost a minute-to-minute basis,” Gov. John Carney said after touring the facility and talking to staff on Monday. “I’ve been so impressed walking around here at the operations center to see all the folks and resources that we’ve put to this pandemic.”

One of the most challenging jobs is handled by epidemiologists who are working to track down anyone who may have come in contact with a coronavirus patient. There were eight positive cases of COVID-19 in Delaware as of Tuesday morning.

“They’re doing what they call ‘contact investigations’ or ‘contact tracing,’” said Andrea Wojcik, spokeswoman for the Division of Public Health. “They will find out who are their close contacts, who they spend most of their close time with, then they’ll go and talk to those individuals and talk to them about their risk.”

The operations center is running at alert level three— the highest level. That status allows DPH to draw more staff from other parts of state government to help out.

“We’ve expanded staffing to the weekends, so we have people available to write additional communications, answer media questions, put out press releases,” Wojcik said.

“People are starved for information that they can trust,” Carney said. “It’s really important that folks understand what’s really at stake here, the things that they can do to mitigate against the spread of the disease.”

Governor John Carney tours State Health Operations Center with Director of Division of Public Health Dr. Karyl Thomas Rattay on Monday, March 16, 2020, at State Health Operations Center in Smyrna, Del. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

In addition to the state of emergency declaration he issued last week, on Monday Carney extended restrictions on public gatherings to groups of less than 50 people. He also ordered restaurants and bars to close down their business except for take-out and delivery.

“This is the time for us all as Delawareans and as Americans to rally together, pull together, do the right thing, be calm and try to flatten that curve, as they say,” he said.

It’s possible the operations center could expand to around-the-clock operations, but that’s not in the plans yet.

“For our staff, we try and keep normal hours so we can maintain peoples’ sense of normalcy,” Wojcik said. “But as the needs arise and more work and more work needs to be done, bringing more people in for additional hours or even 24/7 is not out of the question.”

The number of Delaware cases could be poised to see a big jump following Friday’s drive-through testing in Wilmington done by ChristianaCare. More than 500 residents were tested from their cars. The results of those tests should start to come in soon.

As of Tuesday morning, Delaware has eight cases of coronavirus. Seven of them are connected to the University of Delaware. The eighth case announced on Monday was a woman who contracted the virus from someone out-of-state.

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