As the novel coronavirus continues to spread and Ohio, the United States, awaits test results on a possible case, past public health crises have helped officials prepare.
In October 2014, Amber Vinson, a nurse from Texas, was diagnosed with Ebola after treating a patient who had contracted the disease in Africa.
The day before she was diagnosed, she had been in Akron, Ohio.
The Kent State alumna had flown there to visit her family and plan for her upcoming wedding. She showed no symptoms and had consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before flying.
After Vinson was diagnosed with Ebola, however, everyone who she came in contact with in Akron had to be monitored by the Summit County health department, the Ohio Department of Health and the CDC.
An Akron bridal shop where Vinson and her bridal party had gone to try on dresses closed voluntarily to clean. The shop eventually fell victim to the circumstances around the Ebola scare and went out of business.
In total, 164 Ohioans were monitored during a 21-day watch period, including people who flew on the plane with Vinson. None contracted Ebola.
But Akron briefly became the epicentre of a virus that had never been detected in the United States.
“With this coronavirus, we’re getting the ability to learn about the virus and know about things ahead of time to package our messaging and make it happen, ” Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said. “With Ebola, things were happening so quickly that it made it difficult to be accurate all the time and be timely.”
Last week, the state announced it was testing another person for the coronavirus but wouldn’t say where. The state plans to release more information if the patient’s test results come back positive.
Two weeks ago, officials at Miami University in Oxford decided to alert the campus that there were two students who showed symptoms of the virus. Those students’ tests eventually came back negative.
Although the novel coronavirus is generating concern around the world right now, the Ohio Depart-ment of Health is always keeping an eye on different diseases and how they spread, said Dr Amy Acton, the department’s director.
“This monitoring is going on all the time, but you don’t see it unless something goes wrong, ” Acton said. “If we didn’t have it, we’d be in a much different situation.”
Communication has proven to be key when disease outbreaks threaten the public, state and local health officials said.
A big takeaway from past outbreaks – such as the spread of H1N1 swine flu in 2009 – was that public health officials needed to communicate clearly with the general public in as many ways as possible, said Tamara McBride, chief of the Bureau of Health Preparedness at the state health department. Strategic messaging can help prevent panic, both McBride and Acton said.
“We try to nip the messaging in the bud and make sure we are communicating early and often, ” McBride said. “All of those things kind of help satisfy that hunger when people are scared.”
During Akron’s Ebola scare, Summit County’s health department opened a call centre in Cuyahoga Falls to answer questions from the public and field leads about potential contacts. The lines were flooded with calls from people reporting that Vinson had gone to football games, schools, restaurants and other places – all rumours that ended up being untrue.
“We feel like one lesson learned was, ‘How do you manage the influx of information, sort it for the public so they can understand it, be that filter or triage and get it out in a meaningful way?’” said Skoda, who was assistant health commissioner at the time.
The Franklin County Health Department is always evaluating its response to outbreaks.
Officials learned from past events that being as transparent as possible is important so residents get the information they need to protect themselves, said Joe Mazzola, Franklin County health commissioner.
“We do look back at some of those higher-level events as an opportunity to make any adjustments, ” Mazzola said. “We’ve already done that – we do that on an ongoing basis.” – Tribune News Service/The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)/Betty Lin-Fisher and Max Filby