Pa. is preparing for coronavirus as CDC warns spread in U.S. may be ‘inevitable’

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine (Commonwealth Media Services)

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine (Commonwealth Media Services)

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No one has tested positive for the new coronavirus in Pennsylvania, but the state’s health secretary said Wednesday preparations are underway to deal with the “very serious health issue.”

“Since the start of this outbreak, we’ve taken a proactive approach to prepare and carefully monitor the health and safety of Pennsylvanians that were returning from China,” Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine said at a Capitol press conference. “It is critical now that we be prepared for the possibility of community spread of COVID-19.”

There are more than 80,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects that number to rise and is urging the public to act to prevent the spread of the virus, which has caused 2,700 deaths worldwide but none so far in the U.S.

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Tuesday.

The Wolf administration has activated the Department of Health’s enhanced response coordination, is monitoring symptoms of those who have recently traveled to China, is educating businesses and schools, and has updated the flu plan for coronavirus, according to a Wednesday statement.

“We are not discussing the number of cases that we are monitoring,” Levine said. “We are following all of the CDC guidelines, but we are not going to cover specific numbers now. If there is a case of COVID-19, we will inform the public.”

Symptoms of the virus can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, and can appear two to 14 days after the initial exposure. Some people carry the virus and can spread it, but do not show any symptoms.

“This coronavirus is somewhat more contagious than influenza and it seems it can lead to more deaths than influenza,” Levine said, noting that there is conflicting international data.

Levine said the state is prepared with “stores of personal protective equipment.” If those supplies were depleted by community spread, the state would have to rely on federal supplies.

“Any lab testing in Pennsylvania is done at the CDC [in Atlanta], but we at the state Department of Health have labs ready to do quality testing,” Levine said, adding that the department is waiting for the CDC to send replacement test kits to replace faulty ones. The CDC has not said when new kits will arrive.

The CDC can deliver test results within 24 to 48 hours, Levine said, assuming there is no backlog.

Worldwide, there are already efforts underway to create a vaccine. Scientists from Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute and Plymouth Meeting-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals are working to deliver a vaccine that will be ready within months, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The highly contagious virus has already had a chilling effect in parts of the state and has halted trips to and from China.

“I would like to reassure you that the Pennsylvania Department of Health and our stakeholders are prepared for any spread of COVID-19,” Levine said.

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